It’s cropping up on the White House lawn and taking root here in our own backyard. A few days before First Lady Michelle Obama and Assistant White House Chef Sam Kass broke ground on an organic “kitchen garden” with children from a D.C. school, about one hundred of us locals interested in urban gardening sat mesmerized at a public information session with Will Allen of Growing Power. Brought in by area food activist Jo Anne Bander with help from Human Services Coalition President Daniella Levine, the former pro basketball player and University of Miami alum spoke about his love affair with composting worms, aquaponic farming systems and how his Milwaukee-based non-profit distributes 4,000 healthy afterschool snacks of sprouts to area public schools. Yes, you read correctly. Kids are eating sprouts, not mac and cheese, as an afterschool snack in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Everyone from parents to baby-sitters knows that children don’t like to be told what to do without knowing why. And that “because I said so” doesn’t fly as a reason. I don’t pretend to be a child psychologist or nutritionist, but in my experience, the same goes for why they turn their noses up at good-for-you foods. I’ve seen kids eat and very much enjoy healthy foods when they feel a sense of agency and are involved in the process to the table, especially in a hands-on fashion.
Growing Power began as a youth-serving organization in 1993, when Allen, a farmer with land, began offering teens the opportunity to work at his store and renovate the greenhouses on the property to cultivate food for the surrounding neighborhoods. The program has now grown into a community outreach effort spanning the U.S. and the globe to Africa, Eastern Europe and South America. Its mission revolves around thinking locally and acting globally. Not concerning himself with the big commercial outfits of commodity farmers, Allen focuses on small-scale urban farming techniques to educate people from diverse backgrounds on how to cultivate their own sustainable food sources, and thus improve the environments in which they live. The grass roots movement is steadily gaining momentum in popular culture, as more affluent people look to adopt environmentally-sound lifestyles and cut household expenses to contend with challenging economic conditions.
Allen has been recognized for his accomplishments to date with an 2008 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, providing him with $500,000 in grant money to continue his work over the next five years. A good thing, since action on a mainstream level will take time. And although awareness is very high (just Google “Will Allen Urban Garden” or “Growing Power”), growingpower.org has logged a healthy but modest 81,761 visitors since August 2008, traffic that is a far cry from what You Tube video sensations attract on a weekly basis.
Corporate America is listening and acting now, following the lead of Will Allen, the White House and influential crusaders of the food community like organic gardening advocate and chef Alice Waters. Reader’s Digest has just launched a contest called Good Food Gardens, in partnership with Share Our Strength and the Food Network, awarding the creation of five new edible gardens in schools and communities to eligible nonprofits, schools with a valid NCES code or local government entities that serve children and youth. See if your organization qualifies and enter here.
I connected with Jo Anne Bander via email today about Will Allen’s presentation last week, and the progress being made on the urban gardening front in Miami. She writes, “Over 125 individuals attended, including individuals with personal interests and representatives of organizations already doing the work, such as Miami-Dade Earth Ethics Institute, the Miami Beach Botanical Garden, Roots in the City and Urban Empowerment in Coconut Grove. There were also individuals present who control land available for urban gardens and good citizen groups. There were individuals from government and quasi-governmental bodies and Mayor Cindy Lerner of Pinecrest. There were educators and backyard gardeners. Most significantly, people who could not attend but heard about the gathering have been contacting us and asking to be kept in the loop.”
“There is a significant school garden program already underway, with strong support within Dade County Public Schools. The Education Fund is developing and managing one such initiative, Plant a Thousand Gardens/Collaborative Nutrition Initiative, which launched with a significant grant from Health Foundation of South Florida and has grown with assistance from other funders. They are working with 10 Title I schools.”
“Daniella and I, as conveners, see our role as building a big umbrella under which many related and interested groups can work together to increase urban gardening as a means to make healthy food accessible to both children and adults and reduce the Miami-Dade obesity epidemic in both populations–an effective and appropriate means to improve health in our community. School gardens will be an important effort, but only one among many.”
To collect the contact information of people who may be interested in learning more or getting involved in the movement, the organizers have developed a short survey here that they are requesting be filled out by March 27. Feel free to forward to others who may be interested in having a conversation about next steps, or who want to be part of the “assets mapping” for urban gardening in Miami.