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When Yogurt Grows on Trees: Why Home Gardens are Important

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A young girl harvests peas from a spring garden.

Julian Scheer’s classic picture book, Rain Makes Applesauce, is a rollicking nonsense poem, with the title as refrain: “The stars are made of lemon juice,/and rain makes applesauce./I wear my shoes inside out,/and rain makes applesauce.”

“Oh, you’re just talking silly talk,” an unseen critic periodically puts in. It’s a delightful children’s read, but these days it’s a little worrisome, too. The fact is that many American kids today—if not quite convinced that rain makes applesauce—come pretty close.

Many kids have no idea where their food comes from or even, in some cases, what it is. In an excerpt from Jamie Oliver’s popular Food Revolution (half TV show, half healthy-food movement), Oliver visits a class of six-year-olds in Huntington, West Virginia, a city with the depressing reputation of being the unhealthiest in America, with an adult obesity rate of nearly 50 percent. He holds up a bunch of ripe tomatoes and asks if anyone knows what these are. Nobody does, though one little boy ventures a guess: “Potatoes?” The class also fails to identify cauliflower, beets (“Celery?” “Onion?”), and eggplant (“Pear?” Turnip?”). Finally, Oliver gives them a broad hint—“It starts with egg…”—at which one kid leaps to his feet and shouts “Egg salad!”

The kids are all excited, bright-eyed, and charming, but utterly clueless about food—though, to be fair, they were all familiar with tomato ketchup. They just didn’t know that it came from tomatoes.

The disconnect between us and the source and nature of our food isn’t just a problem for 6-year-olds in the United States. A British survey of young adults, sponsored by the British organization Linking Environment and Farming (LEAF) found that 46 percent of 16- to 23-year-olds didn’t know that milk comes from cows or bacon from pigs. A third of participants didn’t know eggs come from hens.

An Australian study of 6- to 10-year-olds found that 75 percent thought cotton came from animals, while 27 percent insisted that yogurt grew on trees. In a 2013 poll of 27,500 children conducted by the British Nutrition Foundation, a third of 5- to 8-year olds thought that bread and pasta came from meat, and 10 percent of teenagers thought tomatoes grew underground.

The knowledge gap between food and table, writes Ann Vileisis in Kitchen Literacy (2010), began to widen when the United States embarked on its transition from a nation of farmers to a nation of urban workers. (Today over 80 percent of Americans live in cities or city suburbs.) Where once peas and potatoes came from the backyard garden and eggs from nests in the chicken coop, now a vast agricultural industry stands between us and whatever we’re preparing to toss in the daily cooking pot.

Today, before arriving in the supermarket, Vileisis writes, “food derives not only from an obscured nature but also from behind-the-scenes tractors, gasoline, laser-leveled fields, fertilizers, irrigation ditches, pesticides, combines, migrant workers, laboratories, sanitized factories, stinking feedlots, semi-trucks, and highways.” The gap between food and table is now an impenetrable divide the size of the Grand Canyon. No wonder nobody knows what a tomato is.

There’s no easy fix to this problem, and so far the most promising solutions lie with groups of concerned activists. Grassroots organizations, small and large, increasingly concerned with the provenance of what we eat, are publicizing the health benefits of organic food, seasonal food, and food from local sources. Farmer’s markets are on the rise: according to the Agricultural Marketing Service, there were 1755 such markets in 1994; now there are over 8,000 nationwide—with countless tiny tables, booths, tailgates, and roadside stands that miss being included in official counts. Many people now want to know who grew their lettuce and potatoes, and how; and what kind of life their chicken led before it was chicken pot-pie.

An obvious way in which concerned citizens deal with food worries is by simply growing their food themselves. According to the National Gardening Association, approximately 43 million American households plant food gardens-many on shared plots; the American Community Garden Association lists some 18,000 community gardens in the United States. Gardening experts-among them Fritz Haeg, author of Edible Estates (2010)-point out that we’d all be better off if we planted more vegetables and less grass. (The book’s subtitle is “Attack on the Front Lawn.”) Roger Doiron of Kitchen Gardeners International estimates that turning just 10 percent of America’s lawns over to food plants could meet up to a third of the country’s current vegetable needs.

Even small-scale urban gardening has immense potential. Guerilla gardeners-inspiring, but illegal-are dedicated to planting vegetables, fruits, and flowers on “orphaned land:” vacant lots, trash-infested median strips, derelict sidewalk plots, and curbsides. One such gardener is Ron Finley of south central Los Angeles, whose aim is to provide an alternative to fast food in a community where “the drive-thrus are killing more people than the drive-bys.”

Certainly one of the most direct ways of connecting children with food-real food-is through gardening. Studies show that kids who garden reap a lot of benefits along with the radishes. They get fresh air and outdoor exercise; they bond with fellow gardeners; they improve their communication and social skills; and they develop a sense of responsibility-plants, after all, need nurturing. They also absorb new information-gardening, willy-nilly, comes with its own battery of skills, many involving math and science. Teachers state that kids who participate in school gardening programs do better on standardized tests.

The point, however, isn’t improved test scores. In our technology-saturated society, where hands-on experience, unstructured play, and a chance to mess around in dirt are often at a premium; gardening teaches kids to love and live in the natural world. Kids who garden develop a deeper appreciation for the environment. They also acquire healthier eating habits. Kids who garden tend to eat more vegetables and fruits, and fewer processed snacks and junk foods. Furthermore, such results seem to be long-term. Kids who form healthy eating habits and develop a love of growing things tend to maintain these attitudes into adulthood.

In terms of putting good, healthy food on everybody’s table, we’ve still got a long way to go. A garden, though—even if it’s no more than a couple of pots on the porch—is a good start. And when it comes to the kids, well, if you plant and grow a tomato yourself, you know what it is and you where it comes from.