It Isn’t Just a Playground Anymore

It Isn’t Just a Playground Anymore

. . .

As a result of the recent economic downturn – which one financial guru has dubbed “The Great Recession” – everything is down: jobs, GDP, exports, wages and home values.

The recession officially ended in June of 2009, but during the more than three years since, all the signs and symptoms remain. This is very hard on the economy and the average American. But – as every cloud has a silver lining – the recent recession taught several generations of Americans that profit is not the only goal, and winning is not the only end.

Sometimes, the winners are those who shoot for the best of both worlds. It’s called compromise, and in ravaged Detroit, which once got fat and rich on American automobile manufacture, a rising movement sees people taking over abandoned lots and planting vegetables for home consumption and sale.

At first, the switch from manufacturing to growing was a nod to necessity and not an environmental initiative. People had to eat, and with auto assembly lines abandoned and the city itself shrunk by a full 25 percent, desperate individuals and families converted any plot of land to a garden.

By December 2012, many unemployed will reach the end of their federally funded and state administered unemployment compensation – including the extensions belatedly voted in by the House in 2010 and by Congress in both 2009 and 2010. At that point, the greening of Detroit will be literal instead of figurative.

But Detroit isn’t the only city hard-hit by the recession. Stockton, California is the largest U.S. city to file for bankruptcy; San Bernardino the most recent. All across the nation, 28 municipalities and 7 cities have filed Chapter 9.

Some cities have risen above financial pressures and losses to implement scaled-down budgets and planning. Some people have raised and eaten potatoes, cabbage and melons. This move toward urban agriculture has also inspired (or re-inspired) that American sense of self-sufficiency which made it possible for pioneers to cross the Midwest in wagon trains to reach California, where the streets were rumored to be paved in gold.

There were, of course, no golden streets, just as there are no golden apples. But urban vegetable gardens are bringing back a tradition that recognizes the inherent magic of a seed growing into a cauliflower – a very potent magic that few inner-city children have ever seen. As far as they know, melons come from the produce section in the grocery store.

As Erika Dimmler of Sacramento’s Edible Schoolyard movement says, this seed magic prompts children to eat vegetables they have never tasted before. The Edible Schoolyard movement itself was started in 1996 in Berkeley – no surprise there. From the 1960s through today, Berkeley is one institution of higher learning that remains persistently perched on the cusp of both revolution and renunciation, rejecting capitalist America and all its trappings. Berkeley describes the Edible Schoolyard Project as a program that “uses the process of growing food to educate students.”

But it does much more than that. As soon as young people begin to realize the possibility inherent in a single seed, they not only get a charge out of growing pumpkins (which is rather like magic, isn’t it?), but their health, attention span, mental attitude and even performance in school improves as well.

All that from a tiny seed. As Greenwise Joint Venture notes, the gardens are shaping more than youth. They are the impetus behind young people’s dawning appreciation for ecological stability and economic viability, which can easily go hand-in-hand if the foundation is strong (and education is the best foundation).

Some parents have objected to the program. “Our children play at that playground.”  This even though the patch of unfenced earth with its aging monkey bars, swings and jungle Jim gets less and less use as parents put off having children they can’t afford, and crime spirals out of control in a nation that has never had to cope with being poor.

The perfect response to these objections came from an older woman who was a volunteer teacher in an Edible Schoolyard. “What is play?” she asked, concluding (quite rightly) that vigorous activity and loud voices are not every young person’s idea of fun.

If your school district or school doesn’t have an Edible Schoolyard, contact the organization to find out how you can influence school administrators, teachers and the PTA to engage in this valuable learning/teaching program. Surely we don’t need to be shipping cauliflowers from China to feed Americans. In fact, China is so land poor – with 4 acres per capita as compared to the U.S.’s 24 acres – it is buying land in the U.S. on which to grow food.

From Detroit, which is now a vivid lesson in “can do” as opposed to “don’t want to”, the Rethink Detroit organization notes the addition of more than 800 gardens since 2000, with several maxi-farms seeking city approval. All of which proves that Americans haven’t really lost their sense of self-sufficiency; they just have to dig a little deeper.


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