The Field Report: We Asked the USDA About Its New Garden—and Its Larger Climate Goals | Civil Eats

The Field Report: We Asked the USDA About Its New Garden—and Its Larger Climate Goals

Tom Vilsack breaks ground at the USDA People's Garden. (Photo credit: Tom Witham, USDA)

On Tuesday, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and several other officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) gathered just off the National Mall to announce the reopening of the People’s Garden. They congregated on pathways that snaked between small plots planted with arugula, lettuces, and a cereal rye cover crop. Radish and Chinese cabbage leaves sprouted from wheelchair-accessible raised beds. Signs scattered throughout the space provided information on composting, soil health, and food waste.

“When you grow gardens like this, you create a more resilient food system,” Vilsack told a group of reporters and volunteers, before cutting the ribbon. “Our hope is that it inspires others to go back to their communities to start something like this.”

Vilsack first started the People’s Garden in 2009 during his previous run as ag secretary, and it is adjacent to the lot where USDA hosts its weekly farmers’ market. The $5 million in American Rescue Plan funds being invested in the garden initiative will also support a national network of People’s Gardens. So far, 17 locations have been selected in cities all over the country, including Albuquerque, St. Louis, Oakland, and Detroit. Vegetables from the D.C. garden will be donated to the nonprofit D.C. Central Kitchen.

At the event, Vilsack talked about how the garden fits into other recent USDA investments in local and regional food systems and the work of the agency’s new office dedicated to expanding urban agriculture, which was created by funds allocated in the 2018 Farm Bill.

If you’ve ever worked in a garden, you know that they can provide both mental health and community benefits, and there’s research that backs that up. And while it’s possible for some garden initiatives to grow an abundant supply of healthy food for surrounding residents, the People’s Garden isn’t designed with that kind of production in mind. Instead, it feels like a small park with crops serving as decorative (and educational) plantings. That seems like a missed opportunity, given the resources at the agency’s disposal and the challenges related to hunger and climate it is tasked with addressing. For example, Vilsack explicitly linked the garden initiative to climate action and education at a time when the world’s top climate scientists say a massive, immediate shift to the world’s food systems is needed in order to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change.

We spoke with Deputy Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation Gloria Montaño Greene about how the People’s Garden project fits into the USDA’s larger stated goals around building a more equitable, climate-friendly food system.

How were the 17 locations chosen, and who will be running them?

Those locations are in collaboration with national leadership and state leadership in communities that have either shown some interest in urban agriculture or some support in terms of what they would be able to do in their communities. They’ll be working with local Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) state or district conservationists or a regional representative. The [goal] is to think about how these communities are leveraging, learning, and creating their own [gardens] and having some lessons learned as they make these gardens.

The space doesn’t seem to be designed to produce a lot of food, so what do you see as their primary purpose?

It really is to benefit the community, to be collaborative locally, to think about sustainable practices, and to provide a lot of education on understanding agriculture and how local community gardens or urban agriculture help to provide sustainable local food markets. The Department of Agriculture has been investing quite a bit in local food markets. So thinking about: How do you enter those markets? How do you learn about them? We’re using the gardens as a local education tool to be able to talk about what that means—from seed to harvest.

How does the People’s Garden initiative intersect with the agency’s priorities on equity?

Some of the equity work we’re doing is looking at how we define who is participating in agriculture. After the 2018 Farm Bill, there was a rule passed to be able to include urban agriculture explicitly in there [and provide more funding for it]. We’ve been invigorating that in the last year by setting up the Office of Urban Agriculture and investing in urban communities. How we are educating and bringing people into the system and inviting them into agriculture is part of equity. Part of equity is making sure people understand that this is available to them. The other part is food. As you said, this really cool garden in front of the USDA isn’t for high production, but it is producing food that will need to be consumed and given back to the community.

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According to the latest IPCC reports, there are massive, transformational changes to agriculture that need to happen in order to avoid catastrophic climate impacts. We’re not even close to making those changes at this point. Is this kind of program a distraction? Should the USDA be focused on big systemic changes that will lead to the drastic reductions in agricultural emissions?

I think if you look at the strategic plan . . . it has several goals that we have to [work on] at the same time. For example, we’re doing the climate-smart commodity work, which is a billion dollar initiative. That’s one, and there’s a lot of climate-smart action, environment, and justice work happening throughout the department. This People’s Garden, it’s not distracting, I think it’s adding on and meeting people where they are. Not everybody is able to participate in other ways. This is a good opportunity to be able to talk about what an urban garden is . . . and learn these sustainable practices for soil health or other mitigation efforts.

You mentioned the climate-smart commodity work, and we’re also hearing a lot from the agency about voluntary conservation programs. But Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) enrollment, for example, has been decreasing for years, and now we have high commodity prices that incentivize planting over conservation. Given the scale and the urgency of the climate crisis, is voluntary conservation enough?

I think we have to do it all and push forward. These are the tools that we have, and I think with agriculture communities, these producers have been working on various efforts. Some of them have learned . . . when they have enrolled into our respective programs . . . [that] increased conservation also has increased productivity or increased water resilience. Then, their neighbor sees it and it starts moving forward. So, I think a lot of the practices have been improving. We did a lot of investment in CRP last year to make it more well-known and to be able to address the loss in enrollment from 2020. I think we’re doing quite a bit. Is it enough? I mean, that’s the [big] question, but I think we are making sure that agriculture is part of climate mitigation.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Read More:
New UN Climate Report Urges Food Systems Solutions—Before It’s Too Late
What Aren’t USDA Conservation Programs Paying Farmers More to Improve Their Soil?
Public Libraries Are Making It Easy to Check Out Seeds—and Plant a Garden

Coming to the Table to End Hunger. After hearing from and lawmakers, researchers, and advocacy groups about it for the past year, President Biden announced yesterday that the White House will host a conference on hunger, nutrition, and health this September. This is especially noteworthy since there hasn’t been a White House conference held on these topics since 1969. According to the White House, the conference “will accelerate progress and drive significant change to end hunger, improve nutrition and physical activity, reduce diet-related disease, and close the disparities around them.”

In conjunction with the news, a coalition of nonprofits and academic institutions announced they have already formed a task force and strategy group​​ “to inform the goals” of the conference. The task force includes prominent hunger and nutrition advocates such as Chef José Andrés, former Senator Bill Frist, and representatives from FoodCorps, the National Young Farmers Coalition, and the United Farmworkers. Dariush Mozaffarian, Dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy at Tufts University, is one of the chairs. Last year, Mozaffarian spoke to Civil Eats about the need for such a convening, especially to coordinate the various efforts on hunger and nutrition that happen across different federal agencies. The conference will be the first step, he said, as “it has to be accompanied by a commitment from the White House and Congress to actually implement the recommended policy.”

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Read More:
Op-Ed: Hunger is a Political Decision. We Can Work to End It
Taking Stock and Look Forward: Food Access and Nutrition

Stolen Wealth. A study published this week in the American Economic Association’s AEA Papers and Proceedings journal found that during the 20th century, Black farmers lost land with an estimated value of $326 billion. Study authors identified discriminatory USDA lending and heirs property challenges as the primary causes of land loss. Meanwhile, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas granted a motion on behalf of the National Black Farmers Association (NBFA) and Association of American Indian Farmers (AAIF) to intervene in Miller v. Vilsack, a lawsuit brought by white farmers to prevent the USDA from distributing debt relief to Black farmers. In March, a different court also granted the Federation of Southern Cooperatives’ motion to intervene.

Read More:
Black Farmers Still Await Debt Relief as Lawmakers Resolve Racist Lawsuits
Can an Illinois Bill Counteract the Decline of Black Farmers?

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter and contributing editor. Since 2015, she has reported on agriculture and the food system with an eye toward sustainability, equality, and health, and her stories have appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones. In the past, she covered health and wellness and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

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  1. Amanda Marino
    I really appreciate Lisa Held for asking how establishing a learning garden impacts the community. I think many of these gardens are symbolic gestures. There may be value in having food growing have high visibility, but how much? Thanks for this interview.

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