Monday, February 9, 2009

Home-Grown Hullabaloo

As Americans struggle with our economy’s downward turn, it’s interesting to see people’s different reactions to the changing times. Over the past few years, more people found an interest in gardening as local and heirloom food became trendy. Now even more people are starting to grow their own food as food safety and cost effectiveness become motivating factors.

But who knew wielding a trowel could be so controversial? At every turn we’re reading reports and news stories about firestorms surrounding food, land, and gardening issues. On one hand you’ve got Alice Waters’ call for local produce and an organic, edible garden at the White House. Meanwhile, others protest that home-grown White House tomatoes are elitist and frivolous when there are so many kids living within a few miles of the Obamas who subsist on high-fructose corn syrup and fried foods because there are no grocery stores in their neighborhoods. Personally, I think a White House victory garden is a great idea, even if it’s aspirational for kids in Anacostia. I know of a few vacant lots in Northeast DC that would be prime locations for community gardens.

At least both sides of the Obama garden argument are attempting to think about the greater good. The dark side to the second American Gilded Age was an overwhelming sense of entitlement that persists even as our fortunes dwindle. The Slow Cook talks about being invited to consult about a local community garden and being met with outrage when he suggested that gardeners relinquish their tiny individual plots and change their model to be more like that of a CSA. Forget that the space would be used much more efficiently and each person would end up taking home more food, that it would be healthier for the soil because crops could be rotated, and that spaces could be dedicated to valuable perennials and fruit; the members clung desperately to their little boxes.

At the far end of this self-centered approach are the neighborhood associations and spiteful neighbors who resist the idea that a suburban yard is for anything but (meticulously trimmed) grass. The nice ladies at Garden Rant expressed their consternation with one guy who commented on a NY Times blog entry with the following gem:

“I think we are seeing devolution as people lose their jobs and more of my neighbors are growing their own food.”
I never thought of growing my food as anything but charming and perhaps a little indulgent. Now it’s supposedly trashy, on par with a rusty old car up on blocks in the front yard?

I’ve been thinking about how we Americans have been trained, over the past few decades, to believe that we are entitled to everything and don’t have to think about what goes on beyond our own doorstep. Although gardening can be a solitary activity, I know our interest has prompted us to seek out like-minded individuals to learn from, swap experiences, and share seeds. Can this awful economic situation help us rekindle our community ties and de-compartmentalize our lives by forcing us to share limited resources and find creative uses for our living spaces? While a recession is certainly no fun, I’m eager to find out what happens next.

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