School Gardens, Community Empowerment, and Food Sovereignty

by Jeannie Russell

At HEART, we understand that public schools are (to turn a phrase) the heart of their communities. Schools bring together the interests and hopes of both current and future generations of community members by connecting diverse neighbors, providing many critical direct services to them and their children, and fostering the next generation of community leaders. What could be better than to create within that community heart a living home — one that both mirrors and actively nurtures our natural world by proving space for wild and cultivated species alike, and offers myriad opportunities for youth and the wider community to explore, reflect upon, collaborate with, and directly participate in the processes that support all life on Earth? School gardens place this living world within the school and directly into the lives of its students, and also have the potential to bring their parents, as well as community elders and other neighbors, into a shared experience of collective action on behalf of all.

School gardens provide material help to the community

 A well-planned urban garden will provide refuge and food for many of the beneficial insects, pollinators, and other native animals that are so important to keeping our cities ecologically diverse and healthy. We are currently experiencing massive loss of our critical pollinators and insects worldwide, due largely to habitat destruction and industrial agricultural practices. City gardens recover natural spaces within degraded habitats, and serve as models for farming and gardening practices that don’t pollute water, erode soil, and poison non-target plant and animal species. City birds and visiting migratory species are especially vulnerable without having safe spaces to nest, rest, and find food, which even small urban gardens can provide.

School gardens that include seasonal fruits and vegetables give all students, but especially urban youth and their surrounding community, an amazing opportunity be part of the food sovereignty movement. Food sovereignty means bringing back control over food production and distribution systems to the communities who consume that food, and it takes many different forms depending upon where those communities are. In our cities and in many outlying suburban areas, access to whole fresh foods can be limited and costly, with families relying instead upon the packaged products of unsustainable global food systems and unhealthy processed food corporations. While small urban school gardens will not provide for the food needs of their entire community, they give individuals a choice and a direct role in producing their own foods, a chance to grow and share healthy whole foods affordably, and a place for students and other community members to learn how to create and maintain a sustainable food garden. They also often serve as spaces for community empowerment in many other ways, giving neighbors an opportunity to meet in a collaborative venture to share concerns and organize for positive action, providing (literally) common ground among individuals who may differ greatly in many other respects, and offering vulnerable community members like elders and the disabled inclusion in an intergenerational and accessible setting.

In a time of increasing climate chaos, when the unsustainable food and energy systems that our urban infrastructure relies upon could become suddenly unreliable (e.g., just recently, wildfires and the electrical grid in California and droughts/floods devastating Midwest farms), food sovereignty also means bringing back smaller-scale and local farming practices, and teaching a new generation both the skills and the joys of being a part of growing one’s own food. Industrial (and especially animal) agriculture is a huge contributor to global climate chaos, habitat destruction, and species extinctions. We need models for sustainable agriculture and a generation committed to implementing them if we are going to seriously address our environmental problems in a just and effective way. Expanding the amount of land that is green in our cities is also an important component of climate mitigation efforts: it reduces polluting water runoff, cleans the air, and can help to buffer against flooding in areas vulnerable to sea level rise and increasingly intense storm systems.

School gardens are a great space for humane education

School gardening at any level — from classroom window boxes to full-scale produce gardens — offers humane educators a wonderful space within which to deeply explore and teach about our interconnected world, and address many core humane education topics in ways that are immediately relevant to students and the wider communities that their schools serve.

Food justice, and the related issues surrounding environmental racism in general, is a framing for teaching about all issues related to food production, distribution, and access that helps educators teach about the very unequal consequences of our modern food systems. Areas close to factory farms, or in forested regions being clear-cut to plant soy for those animals, have become unlivable for their people, animals, and native species. Water pollution from huge agricultural regions of the Midwest has created a massive dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, destroying its marine habitat and polluting its shores. Low-income communities of color living in these areas suffer the effects of polluting industries and neglected infrastructure without receiving the benefits of affordable, healthy foods and clean, safe neighborhoods that wealthier communities enjoy.

Teaching about the complex issues surrounding food production, distribution, and access through the frame of injustice helps us tie together the different forms of exploitation that underlie so many of the problems that we want our students to critically explore and respond to: the harm that occurs when people, animals, or any parts of our natural world are treated as commodities in the service of profit, instead of beings with inherent value within a shared, living system. Humane educators can use the space of school gardens to connect the food we eat to the problems with the way it is produced by showing how the extreme animal suffering and environmental impact of factory farming, the loss and degradation of natural habitats around the globe due to industrial farming and the extinction threats that this has created, and the unfair labor practices affecting farm workers both here in the US and around the world, are all examples of exploitation that can be addressed only when core humane values are applied equally to all.

With all the necessary focus on problems and suffering that teaching about these topics requires, creating and sharing a living natural space with our students gives us a chance to bring its beauty and wonder to them as well. A school garden can be a place for mindfulness practice, poetry and storytelling, art, music, and celebrations. The great naturalist E.O. Wilson coined the term ‘biophilia,’ meaning love of nature, to talk about our profound human need to connect to the natural world in all of its amazing diversity, and to protect this living home not just because we need it for material survival, but also for a kind of spiritual survival as a species. Our city gardens nurture that reverence and love of nature, and help us to foster the skills and passion this generation of youth will need to transform our human communities into ones that live as a part of nature, rather than apart from it.

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