Designing Victory Gardens: An Interview with Amy Franceschini | Civil Eats

Designing Victory Gardens: An Interview with Amy Franceschini

Amy Franceschini is the founder of Victory Gardens 2008+ as well as the web-based collectives Futurefarmers and Free-Soil, where she contributes her talents as a multi-media artist to conceptual projects designed to raise awareness on sustainable living and inspire inquiry and innovation. Amy seeks to engage people of diverse disciplines in a spirited dialogue about lessening our impact on the earth through encouraging us to focus on nurturing our creative energies and thus allowing for the cross-pollination of ideas. She is also currently a professor of art at Stanford University and the San Francisco Institute of Art. Her work has been shown in exhibitions at the SFMOMA, the MOMA and Whitney museums of New York, as well as internationally in the ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany.

Emily Callahan: Was the idea for Victory Gardens 2008 inspired by the historical Victory Gardens that American communities planted in response to food shortages during WWII or did the idea for more sustainable gardens come first and the name seem to be a great parallel in terms of communities taking charge of their destiny?

Amy Franceschini: The idea was a culmination of many concerns, but upon learning of the historical vg program a continuum of ideas were galvanized into VG 2008+–

I first became aware of the WWII Victory Garden program in Laura Lawson’s City Bountiful: A History of Community Gardening in America. This effort was initiated in 1941 by the Office of Civilian Defense in cooperation with the Department of Agriculture. Through a National Garden conference a Guide for Planning the Local Victory Garden Program was produced and distributed to cities across the country. Between 1941 and 1943 there were 20 million Victory Gardens and 41% of our total food was being produced in Victory Gardens.

This image of 20 million gardens being planted within two years gave me the fuel to imagine a new program with a focus on contemporary food issues. My intentions were set to revive not only a city-supported gardening program, but a personal revival to get politicized and radicalized about the current food crisis. I am an idealist and I believe that the government is the PEOPLE and was designed to reflect, represent and support the needs of the PEOPLE. This country has lost touch with what that means and in my mind participation is a big part of making this big list of ingredients and cooks into an amazing potluck. More and more, businesses and corporations control “public policy” and have the power and autonomy to develop sustainable systems/products. The homogenizing effect has resulted in loss of the decentralized decision-making made at a local level. Despite the conservative tendencies on a national level, San Francisco city has been successful in moving the progressive movement forward on many fronts. It inspired me to think about the city as a place where progressive ideas can take root.

EC: The kick-off to the Slow Food Nation event here in San Francisco is the planting of an edible ornamental Victory Garden at City Hall whose produce will be donated to local food banks at the end of the summer. What is your artistic vision for this? What do you hope people internalize when they see the garden?

AF: There are two crucial points that should be inherent in the project:

1. City hall/Civic Center should be a place where city politics are visualized, demonstrated, and played out. If the city is supporting urban agriculture, of course there should be a garden in front of city hall demonstrating what they support. Civic center should be an external portrait of what is going on inside and throughout the city.

2. The garden should also highlight the efforts of current garden/urban agriculture practitioners in the community. There is a long-standing movement in the bay area that needs to be honored. The garden should serve as an invitation to meet and witness the practices of these garden organizations. Further it should be a stepping-stone to the home sites of these organizations. The civic center garden should be a place to educate, inspire and trigger participation beyond this central location.

EC: In addition to the Victory Garden planted at City Hall, your organization plans to work with San Francisco residents to plant 15 unique gardens that represent what’s possible for urban dwellers in this microclimate. What makes this challenging besides space constraints?

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AF: The biggest challenge is continued participation. This will require education and a systemic approach.

EC: You’ve planted three victory gardens already with the help of the Garden for the Environment. Where are they and can they be viewed by the public?

AF: All three gardens were planted in private residences. The first garden was in the inner Richmond district, the second in the Sunset and the third in Bayview Hunters Point. The gardens can be viewed by appointment only. The Sunset House can be visited by appointment and the Bayview project is a public space.

EC: Do you have any formal education in horticulture? Do you have your own garden?

AF: I have no “formal” training, although my parents were both farmers. My father farmed over 4000 acres in the San Joaquin valley and my mother had a small, organic farm in San Luis Obispo. I was very involved in food politics through their practice whether it was fighting over water rights or canvassing to neighbors to demand farmer to stop using Malathyon within city limits of Oceano, California. I only have an herb garden, figs and a lemon trees. I have a very small space for growing and have the good Fortune of having Rainbow Grocery three blocks away.

EC: What do you envision for the future of Victory Gardens in San Francisco? Will there be any effort to reclaim land in Golden Gate Park where 800 victory gardens were planted back in the 1940s?

AF: The future of Victory Gardens will be a confident and educated public of food producers! I envision a city program that will support cultivation of public lands; schools, parks, surplus lands. This will entail a larger educational/training component. Our dream is to Reclaim the land across the street from the Garden for the Environment (GFE). To use this to expand the already successful, booming programming and training at the GFE.

EC: When you look back at the history of the Victory Gardens during WWII times, do you think the same kind of support will be engendered by your effort? In your opinion, what does “victory” mean during these times?

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AF: I purposefully kept this name to bring up the historical context as it relates to a not so different ethos of today. That said, I wanted to use this as an opportunity to explore the notion of reclamation and redefining of an idea / program. Conceptually, it provokes an idea that we cannot keep thinking in terms of “new” ideas. We need to look to past models and build upon them – adopt relevant concerns; conservation, education, land use, urban agriculture and nutrition etc. and apply them to our current political reality.

What do we want to be cultivating as urban farmers today? As you are well aware, “Victory,” for the WWI and WWII Victory Garden programs was “winning the war.” Winning the war by growing more food at home so that the nation could send more food overseas to support the war effort.

“Victory” for the Victory Garden 2008 program is independence from a food system whose values we do not support. “Victory” for the Victory Garden program is reducing the food miles associated with the average American meal by growing more food locally. “Victory” is building an alternative to the American industrial food system, which we view as injurious to ourselves, and to the planet. In this way we redefine Victory within the pressing context of urban sustainability, while building upon the previously successful Victory Garden model.

I had my reservations about keeping the name Victory Gardens, but it is something that people across a wide spectrum understand. If we are going to truly cultivate a large-scale food revolution it must be popular. The name gives us a chance to discuss gardening in a time of war. The problematics inherent in the title opens up space for conversation, like this one! If it were called “Happy Gardens” like one city official proposed, maybe we would be denying ourselves from looking at some of the darker realities associated with food policy.

Photo courtesy of Victory Gardens 2007+

Emily Callahan is an elementary school teacher in San Francisco whose first love is food then writing. She is very excited to be a contributor to Slow Food Nation this summer. Read more >

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