I recently came across an article in The Atlantic attacking the proliferation of school gardens in California public schools. This particular diatribe compelled me to offer a written response, for it is emblematic of everything that is misguided and destructive about Consumerism as a culture. In her piece, Caitlin Flanagan claims that California shool garden programs are an insulting distraction from standardized curriculum and only work to further widen the gap in academic achievement between minority and Caucasian children in the state’s school system. The thrust of her argument is basically this: It’s acceptable to have a large agricultural labor force of illegal immigrants work like cogs in a machine to provide food for you to buy at retail – that’s just “capitalism.” But, what an uncivilized practice it is for their offspring to be reminded of their parent’s plight by learning practical agrarian values.
What the author fails to recognize – and this is no doubt a reflection of her buying into the infinite-expansion business model propagandized by Big Ag – is that educating students on the pleasures of working to grow their own food and attending to the tradition of the dinner table as part of a regular curriculum would help eliminate the very social and political conventions which facilitate illegal immigrant serfdom in California. By insisting that test scores and graduation rates are the only barometers of success for grade school students, Ms. Flanagan would have us believe that youth should strive to confine themselves to an unnatural paradigm of careerism. It is a philosophy that does not appear to value what can be produced with one’s own hands, does not value what palliative communal services can and should be rendered with proper knowledge of soil husbandry. This uniquely modern philosophy only seems to concern itself with what material assets can be acquired monetarily by obtaining the right academic credentials. The author seems to imply that our children are best served if they could just learn how to throw money at the problems of social dislocation, poverty and malnutrition without investigating the underlying causes and applying themselves to be the change they want to see. As long as they get a good enough job, why should they care about how their food gets to the supermarket? So long as it gets there at any cost.
For an article that demands quantifiable evidence from advocates on the effectiveness of school gardening in raising educational standards, you would expect an objective, fact-filled rebuttal of the movement. Yet, the only “hard-evidence” provided for us is an anecdote which, interestingly enough, attempts to deny one of the most well documented aspects of our industrial food system: that is the phenomenon of the inner city ‘fresh food desert‘. Ms. Flanagan, in an attempt to show the pervasiveness of “fresh produce,” traveled almost 20 miles into Compton, “the most famous American hood,” to peruse the isles of two major supermarkets. She describes the cornucopia of conventionally grown fruits and vegetables she sees there and marvels at how “all of it was dirt cheap.” The great irony here is that the parents of the young Latino boy, of whose academic plight the author laments in her fictional narrative, are the ones laboring for a pittance to supply these stores with such (relatively) cheap table grapes. The vicious circle of human and land exploitation will continue as long as the demand for cheap labor grows just to satiate a culture completely bereft of its roots, whose members are not willing to feed themselves.
The author is trying to frame the debate by asserting that proponents of school gardens are pushing a social agenda on California school children while opponents are merely trying to purge the system of unnecessary diversions that stand in the way of “attaining the cultural achievements… that have lifted uncounted generations of human beings out of the desperate daily scrabble to wrest sustenance from the dirt.” This derogatory view of agriculture is, in my view, a dangerous social agenda. Its essayers are no more fluent in history than the poor scrabbling souls they seek to liberate. To call the the school garden movement in California “a giant experiment, one that is predicated on a set of assumptions that are largely unproved, even unexamined,” is, in my humble opinion, extremely disingenuous. It stands as the most unexamined statement I have heard leveled on either side of this debate. What she mistakenly calls an ‘experiment’ is actually an attempt to reconnect with our shared cultural heritage, a heritage that has sustained the Indo-European races for millennia – from the alluvial plains of prehistoric Anatolia to the fecund soils of the United States. It wasn’t until the last decades of the 20th century that we turned our backs on this heritage and lost our food security overnight. And now it seems, after reading the tone of Ms. Flanagan’s op-ed, that some of us take it as a moral task to continue consuming at someone else’ expense.
The true experiment has been the Green Revolution and the Global Food Economy in general. It is this experiment, inducing wave after wave of migrant farmers dispossessed of their lands in their own countries by the very same corporations with whom they seek employment in our own, that has proven to be an abject failure. I do agree that this is a debate of social agendas. In the Bourgeois Consumerist corner, we have the social agenda of appeasing corporate plutocracy by advocating that our children join the work force to uphold the status quo. In the other corner stands the Individualist agenda of doing whatever can be done to improve the quality of life of every child subjected to a public education.