Victory Garden Revival Needs a Presidential “Ask”

The election is over, and it’s time to think about the future. Glass ceilings have been shattered, and all sorts of barriers we thought existed have disappeared. I’ve got gardening on my mind…it seems even more important now.

The Victory Gardens of World War I and World War II – and the garden efforts of the Great Depression – helped Americans successfully negotiate hard times. These gardens helped the family budget; improved dietary practices; reduced the food mile and saved fuel; enabled America to export more food to our allies; beautified communities; enabled every American to contribute to a national effort; and helped bridge social, ethnic, class and cultural differences during a time when cooperation was widely needed. Gardens were an expression of solidarity, of patriotism, and shared sacrifice. They were found everywhere…schools, homes, and throughout public spaces in communities all over the nation. No gardening effort was too small. Every effort counted. Americans did their bit. And it mattered.

Consider this: In WWI, the Federal Bureau of Education nationalized a school garden program and funded it with War Department monies. Millions of students gardened at school, at home, and in their communities. A national Liberty Garden (later Victory Garden) program was initiated that called upon all Americans to garden for the nation, and the world. In part because of the success of home gardeners (and careful food preservation), the U.S. was able to increase exports to our starving European Allies. During 1943, an estimated 3/5ths of Americans participated in some sort of gardening activity, including Eleanor Roosevelt, who planted a Victory Garden on the White House Lawn, and Vice President Henry Wallace, who gardened with his son at the VP’s residence. Nearly 40% of the fresh fruits and vegetables consumed stateside during 1943 were grown in school, home and community gardens. In addition to providing much-needed food, gardening helped Americans accept the nation’s plurality, providing a positive experience that transcended race, class and socioeconomic divisions. That bridged rural/urban differences. They provided a way for all Americans to provide a service to the nation. Gardens were not a diversion…through gardening efforts, Americans made significant contributions to the war effort.

Our nation has many needs right now. Families need help with their personal economies. Entire communities are food-insecure. We have a tenuous connection with the land, and a poor understanding of our food system. Obesity is an epidemic. Environmental concerns – and declining oil supplies – dictate a need to recreate more sustainable and local food systems. And Americans have proven that they are hungry for change, eager to re-engage with their neighbors, their communities, their nation.

A revival of the successful national gardening programs of the past could help in many, many ways. This would not be a costly program. All of the educational materials that support school, home and community gardens is available through existing government agencies and private organizations. A government-sponsored program through the USDA, state land grant institutions, and county government fields thousands of highly-trained Master Gardeners who could be called upon to share their expertise with school, home and community gardeners.

What is needed to make this idea a reality is an “ask” by our new President. Simply encourage all Americans that can to plant some sort of garden for the spring/summer season of 2009. Encourage them to plant for their families, and their communities. To share extra produce with food banks and the growing number of hungry in our nation. Put a vegetable garden on the White House lawn. (You might consider talking to my friend Roger Doiron about that -visit him at Eat The View).

And please visit my UC Victory Website for additional information about how the past could inform current public policy in this area.

Video: Original WWII film on victory gardening

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