Thursday, October 21, 2010

Attack On Attack On School Gardens

Earlier this month Andrew Sullivan posted Adam Ozimek's attack on schools gardens, which he (Adam and then Andrew quoting Adam) called "yuppie vanity." There's a kernel of truth in that statement, but it should be dwarfed by the rest of the ear.

I too find fault in the elitist elements of the local foods movement and in gardens whose sole purpose is to make rich people feel better about already having the world's finest food supply. And any vegetables are better than no vegetables, whether they're frozen, canned, or made into "space dinners" for astronauts.

Where Sullivan and Ozimek misfire is in their unmitigated praise of frozen veggies over school garden programs. If Sullivan/Ozimek were writing from a place of concern for the well being of poor children, they would at least acknowledge that we should emphasize frozen vegetables in addition to school gardens.

But that would make for a far less catchy post. They are playing the "I am an opinionated blogger, listen to me" card and the often-used in conjunction "and I speak for the poor, not you elitists" card, though of course they too are members of the elite.

Changing the way that people eat is not exclusively about changing what they eat. It's about changing perception. With school gardens we're often talking about kids who actually don't know that vegetables are grown in the ground: that's something that many educators report hearing. If that's where you're coming from, it doesn't matter how many frozen vegetables you're told to eat. You won't be inspired to.

School gardens a) yield incredibly valuable fresh produce in areas that often have no produce (not even frozen) and b) provide even more valuable inspirational teaching tools. Condemning them as ineffective or superfluous is just as short-sighted as condemning an inspirational work of art, like the protest songs that fueled the anti-war movement in the 1960's. Especially if you could also eat that work of art, and it was delicious.

Which is better motivation for eating more vegetables: witnessing the miraculous journey from seed to carrot, and then pulling up that piece of food that you grew from the dirt with your own two hands and taking a bite, or being handed a bag of frozen broccoli florets? Teach a man to fish, etc.

Both bloggers also ignore the new data in favor of school gardens that prompted the attack. And Ozimek falls into the trap of using the word "progressive" as a negatively charged adjective without explanation, as in the sentence "Unfortunately, it seems that these genuinely useful policies and programs are being bogged down with wasteful progressive ideas."

Ozimek describes the values of fresh food champions like Jamie Oliver and Alice Waters as "wasteful upper-class liberal obsession over local, fresh, and organic foods." Reminder: local, fresh, organic food is not exclusive to the upper class. That's just the stigma it carries in the U.S. today. Not to idealize the diet of the poor, as Rachel Laudan cautions us against doing, but local, fresh, and organic is how the whole world used to eat and how much of it still eats by default and not because it's cool. Such foods get the shaft in being branded as a departure from brand, spankin' new systems of food production labeled "conventional," though they are anything but. Of the two, "conventional" produce is the new radical.

Local for the sake of local is not a luxury, as Ozimek suggests. It is a powerful notion that keeps more money in the communities these children live in and that makes a tremendous qualitative difference in the lives of those it effects: the farmers who receive more of every dollar, patrons who experience the social benefits of having their own farmers market, and those who seek alternatives to the risks posed by industrial agriculture.

Sullivan/Ozimek are also guilty of determining what poor people should do without consulting them, making them appear at least as elitist as any goat cheese and arugula devotee. Ultimately, poor people should get to decide what poor people get to do, and the important thing is to provide them with a range of options so that they can pick the one that works best for them. Because, shockingly, poor people are actual people, and are different from one another, and some of them are able to and want to grow some of their own food. Thankfully there are several programs that help them do so.

Many of the vain yuppies being attacked are also big fans of frozen vegetables. Most of the people I know who grow their own food and shop at farmers markets also use frozen vegetables, and none of them are wealthy. In other words, it's not like people who garden are rich fools and people who eat frozen veggies are poor heroes. The lines are not as distinct as Sullivan/Ozimek make them out to be.

What we have here is a typical case of curmudgeonliness clouding vision. This is precisely the perspective that was dismissive of public interest in organic food, now one of the fastest growing sectors of agriculture, and then of local food, now being championed not only by "yuppies" but also by Walmart (for better or for worse).

There are a lot of poor, blue-collar people the world over who grow their own vegetables. It is neither ignorant nor idealistic to suggest that more people do so, and that's not to exclude frozen vegetables from the mix.

Should lower income households try to grow their own vegetables? Should lower income people try to eat more frozen vegetables? The answer to both questions is yes, though the former has the power to create a greater change, as the new data suggests, and if you can only dismiss that as a pipe dream of the privileged, then you should wipe the icy peas and carrots from your eyes.

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