How revisiting Eleanor Roosevelt’s Victory Gardens program could help feed a suffering nation.
Thursday, December 11, 2008
The Bush administration’s prescription for economic health has been to encourage consumers to shop our way to prosperity. But as we’ve been learning the hard way, doing so with borrowed money isn’t sustainable.
The current recession is already being compared to the Great Depression. And while the effort to win World War II is often credited with helping to end that funk, the two wars we’re currently fighting have only helped sink the economy even more. While we probably don’t need another world war, some lessons learned during the last one may still be relevant.
The nation awaits President-elect Obama’s green version of FDR’s New Deal – which was another catalyst for ending the Great Depression. Obama’s new New Deal holds promise, but I hope that he also considers dusting off another program from that era: First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s Victory Gardens.
The Victory Gardens program supplied Americans with the encouragement, tools, instruction and sometimes even the land necessary to create personal vegetable gardens. Twenty million such gardens were planted during World War II, and they produced 40 percent of America’s vegetables.
“I was 9 or 10 years old,” my dad recalls. “I bought seeds, followed the instructions on the seed packet, and grew corn in the backyard. It didn’t do very well.”
Still, he says, “it was the patriotic thing to do. Food was being rationed. Whatever civilians could grow themselves meant there would be more for the armed services.”
While the Victory Gardens program has been given partial credit for the successful outcome of World War II, what could have been an ongoing and productive legacy of the war effort was derailed by the weapons industry, which suddenly found itself in need of a purpose.
Ammonium nitrate is the main ingredient in both bombs and chemical fertilizer, and after World War II the government encouraged the conversion of the munitions industry into fertilizer production (while also encouraging a shift in the focus of nerve-gas research toward pesticides).
The U.S. government also began subsidizing commodity crops, paying farmers for all the corn, soybeans, wheat and rice they could produce, while a succession of agriculture secretaries encouraged farmers to “get big or get out.” The practice of dumping weapons-grade ammonium and toxic pesticides on gargantuan farm fields – also known as “the Green Revolution” – created literal mountains of the cheapest food in history.
But, as Michael Pollan points out in his recent memo to the next “Farmer in Chief” in the New York Times Magazine, “The era of cheap and abundant food appears to be drawing to a close.”
Rising oil prices are a big reason for this, but expensive food is hardly the only downside to petroleum-intensive farming. “The way we feed ourselves contributes more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than anything else we do,” writes Pollan. He also points out that before last spring’s spike in food prices, Americans had been paying less and less for food since 1960 (from 18 percent to 10 percent of household income) while paying more for healthcare (from 5 percent to 16 percent of household income).
As four of the top 10 killers in America today – heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes and cancer – are chronic diseases linked to diet, the correlation between money spent on food and medical care doesn’t look like a coincidence. Not only is cheap food health and bad for the environment, but cheap food isn’t even cheap anymore.
If Victory Gardens helped win World War II and end the Great Depression, maybe this time around we could just skip the world war, and improve our health, heal the economy and put the brakes on global warming all at the same time with small gardens. There’s much to be gained by trying – and nothing to lose.
Several organizations are already advocating a return to Eleanor Roosevelt’s program. These include Revive the Victory Garden (www.revivevictorygarden.org), and Victory Gardens 2008+, a San Francisco group that supports the conversion of back yards, front yards, window boxes, rooftops and unused land into organic food – production areas.
Victory Gardens 2008+ defines “victory” as growing food at home to increase local food security and reduce the distance food is transported. The group’s crown jewel is a 10,000-square-foot public garden planted in front of San Francisco City Hall last summer, as a joint project with Slow Food Nation. The produce went to local food banks, and the garden, in its high-profile location, became a showpiece for the importance of local food.
Perhaps the next step, as Pollan suggests in his memo, and with all due respect to lawn-lovers, could be converting a portion of the White House lawn into a vegetable garden. A campaign called “Eat the View” (www.eattheview.org) is already petitioning the president-elect to do just that. A White House “First Garden” in the same soil where Eleanor Roosevelt planted her Victory Garden would send a strong message to the nation and the world.