January 13, 2010

Atlantic gets it wrong! School Gardens cultivate minds not failure

Jesse Kurtz-Nicholl

Jesse Kurtz-Nicholl

Research Assistant

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

As a disclaimer, I used to be a high school teacher in Richmond, Calif in the exact urban schools of which Caitlin Flanagan writes about.

This post is in response to the recently published article in the Atlantic magazine by Caitlin Flanagan titled, “Cultivating Failure.”

Ms. Flanagan makes the argument that the school garden movement building in California and nationwide is somehow stripping students of valuable time to become “educated,” dooming urban students to a life of poverty and “cultivating failure” as her title expresses. She begins with the idea that immigrant students from Mexico, who come to the United States in search of an education are being pushed back into the fields of manual labor through their middle school garden. I wish I could just claim how ridiculous this viewpoint is and be done with it, but I take her feelings seriously and feel the need to correct the record.

In her article, she makes the claim that she traveled to deeply urban areas near Compton, Calif., and found a bountiful harvest of cheap, healthy produce in the local Ralphs and other supermarkets backing up her claim that there is no need for school gardens that provide “access” to healthy food because it is everywhere. There are some serious flaws with this argument. First off, a recent study released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture tells us that 14.6 percent of American households, approximately 17 million households are “food insecure” meaning that they can’t afford a healthful diet or lack dependable access. Many communities like West Oakland, Calif., Baltimore and Richmond, Calif., lack supermarket chains within a reasonable distance. Her contention thus smacks of a very dangerous fallacy of composition. A second problem I have with Ms. Flanagan’s assessment is that even if there was incredible access of all of our urban and rural residents to great healthy produce, which there is not, it not would diminish the importance and need for school gardens and even more intensive food production-focused endeavors like The Food Project in Boston, Urban Roots in Austin, Urban Tilth in Richmond, Calif., and Alice Waters’ edible schoolyard. With staggering obesity rates in the United States, our children have not just lost access, they have lost their connection to food. Gardening is less about manual labor than it is about re-connecting to your body, to food and to health.

We know from programs like Head Start and research that young people will perform better in school if they are well-fed. After watching throngs of students come into my classes every morning with a breakfast of chips and a soda, I know the true value of garden programs that change the way children and adolescents think about their body, what they put in it and how it affects them. If Ms. Flanagan claims that the garden “takes away” an hour and a half each week of class time, (all of which is spent outside, doing physical activiy, I remind you) I claim that hour and a half, if anything, only acts to engage the student further, cement their connection with the school (which is lacking in many urban areas), beautify their learning environment, and even, yes, provide them with healthy food and snacks that will help them maintain better health, choose better nutrition and be more focused when it comes time to engage in their in-class learning.

All of this tacitly acknowledges Flanagan’s argument that urban agriculture and school gardens are somehow a break from learning, and that you must sacrifice scholarly learning when you are in the garden. I completely disagree with this most fundamental of Ms. Flanagan’s arguments.

In fact, after running an Urban Agriculture and Food Systems class last year with high school students, I’m convinced that you could teach not only a Biology class, a Chemistry class, but a U.S. History class, Art classes and elements of English classes and even Math classes in various ways through the garden and sacrifice nothing of which Ms. Flanagan contends. I agree with her that the California school system is deeply broken. Why she decides to pin it on school gardens and Alice Waters is beyond me. How about blasting the state for drastically underfunding our schools or Prop 13 for emptying the coffers of valuable school revenue and forcing class sizes into the dangerous territory of 40 students or more or low teacher pay that won’t attract the young bright minds we should have educating our children, or myriad other concerns. I wish every school had a substantial thriving school garden class and program, but the fact is that there are very few schools that actually have a substantial food production program like MLK middle school in Berkeley; most are small gardens that never get used, or gardens used during after-school time. While I wish every school could have an Alice Waters supporting their wonderful food-focused garden, sadly that’s not the case

Lastly, we are starting to learn that it is our food environment and not lack of exercise that is the main cause of our overweight society. Recent studies from Johns Hopkins have begun to illuminate that point. Well, I ask you, where is the food environment for our children? Some would say the home, which is true, but students also spend 1/3 of their day at school. Considering another 1/3 of their time is spent sleeping, I would contend that the food environment of the school is incredibly important in developing a healthy lifestyle for our urban students. Take a deep look at this article, and try to answer the question of how learning about food and our connection to it somehow cultivates a life of failure. I can’t come to that conclusion.


  1. Posted by Damon Wood

    Thank you for this. I wrote a pretty angry letter to the Atlantic about this screed. It’s tiresome to see the hits Alice takes for whatever offense she enacted upon the offended masses, but targeting this wonderful program is unfathomably silly and smacks of an agenda. Anyway, thanks again for your good words on this.

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