Can Gardening Change the World?

The American History Museum celebrates our country’s lush food history—and explores its food future—with the Food in the Garden series

panel at Food in the Garden’s
The panel at Food in the Garden’s August 1 event prepares to delve into the issues surrounding community garden and food education. Photo courtesy of the National Museum of American History

When it comes to educating children about gardening, first lessons can seem surprisingly basic.

“Kids learn that food grows!” said Anna Benfield, Education Programs Manager at Washington Youth Garden. “Kids say, ‘I’ve never eaten a leaf,’ and I ask, ‘Well, have you ever had lettuce? That’s a leaf!’”

Benfield spoke as part of a four-woman panel led by Susan Evans, program director of the American Food History Project at the National Museum of American History, a project that, in conjunction with Smithsonian Gardens, is putting on the five-event series Food in the Garden within the idyllic setting of the American History Museum’s Victory Garden. Located on the east side of the museum, the Victory Garden is immense, spanning almost the size of an Olympic swimming pool and housing more than 50 varieties of flowers and vegetables.

On August 1, Evans and Benfield spoke at the museum alongside Sophia Maravell of Brickyard Educational Farm, Christina Conell of the USDA’s Farm to School Program and Joan Horwitt of Lawns 2 Lettuce 4 Lunch to discuss a provocative question: Can gardening change the world?

These issues serve as the backbone for the museum’s Food in the Garden series, held in conjunction with the FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950–2000 exhibition, which explores where our nutrient resources comes from and how we grow them. Previous events have discussed the history of heirloom produce and foraging for food in your backyard, but the recent event centered around a more contemporary—and at times aspirational—concept. Community gardens seek to bring people together toward a common goal: growing food within a community plot. It’s an idea that’s at the same time quite new and very old; from the food gardens of World War I to the small urban farms of today, community gardening is steadily on the rise, especially in recent years. In nearby Montgomery County, Maryland, alone some 600 gardeners participate in community gardens at ten locations.

“When you look back in history, people used to grow their own food,” Horwitt explained, noting that the concepts of community garden and community food education aren’t as unusual as they might seem.

What may seem different is the idea of community gardens as a vehicle for social change, a common platform which all four panelists were arguing for. Community and school gardens, they all claimed, can be used just as effectively as math and science textbooks to teach children important life skills. The Chez Panisse Foundation’s Edible Schoolyard Project developed by the Berkeley, California chef Alice Waters functions as one model for such a vision. The 17-year-old project serves more than 7,000 Berkeley, middle-schoolers and impacts food education on a national level. When it comes to these young students, many suffer from a disconnect in understanding how the food that they eat grows—and even more fundamentally, where it comes from.

Brickyard Educational Farm, located in Montgomery County, is a new school garden program, functioning as an educational tool where students come for a visit to the farm—or watch in-class presentations put on by farm staff—to learn more about sustainable farming, food systems and food economy. These are life skills that Marvell sees as being equally important as more traditional subjects required by educational standards.

“In Montgomery County, we have an environmental literacy standard,” Marvell explained. “I think we need a food literacy standard. Once educators accept that this is just as valuable a subject as math, then we can mainstream it.”

From a wider viewpoint, the USDA’s Conell argued that gardens and food education have far-reaching positive impacts on the community at large. “In order to get people behind the idea of community gardens and food education,” she explained, “it’s important to show the positive economic repercussions.” The USDA is investing in this idea nationally, awarding up to $5 million annually to help schools create positive farm to school education.

Not all of the Food in the Garden events carry such a weighty social message, but Evans sees the evening’s focus on education and activism as indicative of a larger tradition in American history. “What we’re really doing is presenting how current policies and trends fit on a broad continuum of food history in America. By sharing stories of the past with our visitors, we encourage them to make connections to their own lives and ask how their actions affect history as well,” she said. “By situating the programs in the Victory Garden, we are having our conversations in the shadow of a fascinating historical story about the importance of growing your own food, both to America and to your community.”

Attendees didn’t need to get their hands dirty to enjoy the delicious fruits of local farms—while listening to the panel discuss the importance of community food education, guests were treated to a sort of taste education themselves, dining on a selection of locally grown dishes and artisan cocktails from the DC distillery New Columbia Distillers. August 1 marked the half-way point in this summer’s series, with two remaining events scheduled for August 8 and August 15—an exploration of the science behind soil, and a celebration of the enduring legacy of American food icon Julia Child.