…by Meg White
The place Meg puts the stuff she wrote
Rage Against the Vegetable Garden
Categories: Commentary, Food

by Meg White

My father often tells a story of a chicken dinner he once prepared that involved a “whole fryer.” I toddled into the kitchen, perhaps curious as to what Da-da was doing in there. He held the bird that would become our dinner up for to his little daughter to see: pimply skin, strange flipper-looking things and all.

“It looks like a little person!” I cried.

My father was taken aback. Looking down at this shocked little person standing in his kitchen, he wondered how it could be that for every time he had served his little girl fowl, she never realized that it came from the same type of entity depicted as Chicken Little and Foghorn Leghorn.

The thing was, we lived in the city. And though my father’s parents had experience farming, my own knowledge of such a place was limited to books and the occasional public school field trip. Sure, trips to historic Gibbs Museum of Pioneer and Dakotah Life in St. Paul, MN were cool, but the experience gave us kids the impression that a “farm” was a relic of the past, an inefficient, hardscrabble life we were all happy to abandon.

That was true, for the most part. Farms in the traditional sense, the ones I saw depicted on the fronts of margarine packages growing up, didn’t exist anymore outside of museums. The factory farm that took over was certainly no place for children. Of course, we got the offal from such places. I still remember the taste of the greasy rectangles of pizza and tater tots from the “hot lunch” line. And in recent years, school lunchrooms have been a place to dump contaminated meat from abused and sickly cows.

I was one of the fortunate ones, though, because we had a vegetable garden at home. How lovely it would have been to bring some of the benefits of a garden, along with the knowledge of where that food magically came from, to the school lunch- and classrooms.

I now see I was lucky to be sent out to weed the cucumbers. But one woman considers such a task and determines that a “cruel trick has been pulled on this benighted child by an agglomeration of foodies.”

In the current issue of The Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan blasts the use of vegetable gardens as a learning tool in public schools as an uppity, vaguely racist tool to subjugate children to manual labor and unfairly deprive them of the Three R’s.

Flanagan has a serious bone to pick with California’s Edible Schoolyard program, founded by celebrity chef Alice Waters. She insists something about education is polluted when, in math class students learn to measure dimensions by preparing a garden plot. But if the skill set is the same, what’s wrong with teaching an illiterate kid how to spell “botany,” or teaching chemistry by testing the acidity of local soil? Isn’t building a rainwater catchment system — as an innovative way to teach geography, math and ecology all at once — an opportunity too good to pass up?

Nope. Flanagan argues it’s more important students learn how to write “a coherent paragraph on The Crucible.” Part of her resistance comes from her apparent view that scoring high on exit exams is a means to overall educational success, rather than the other way around. I will grant her that: Teaching to the test is harder to do in a garden.

Flanagan is praised by this food blogger (who appears to despise what he calls the “eaterati”) for her iconoclastic piece, which supposedly “asks questions, levels criticisms, doesn’t settle for blind acceptance.”

But did she ask questions? As Andrew Leonard points out in Salon.com, “Flanagan’s concoction is just that; a fantasy made up out of thin air. In her entire 3,500-word article, there is no indication that she talked to a single Latino in Berkeley who might have misgivings as to the merits of elementary and middle school kids spending a mere hour-and-a-half a week tending a garden.”

Yet Flanagan keeps returning to this notion that the existence of a school vegetable garden makes a mockery of those immigrant workers who slave away in the produce fields of California. She wildly imagines an assimilation novel, The White Man Calls It Romaine, in which the children of illegal immigrants are sent by their teachers back into the fields to do the same manual labor that broke their poor parents.

She omits the part where the children are sprayed with pesticides, forced to work from sun-up to sunset without water and given inadequate protection from the elements. The fact is, these children of immigrants may feel heartened to learn that as a country, the United States is slowly transitioning away from such abusive practices to feed itself (I say “may” because, unlike Flanagan, I don’t think assuming I know how a child of an illegal immigrant feels about organic, small-scale farming does anyone any favors). The point here is that there is another way to do things, and that is part of the lesson children should learn.

Flanagan instead insists that “the new Food Hysteria has come to dominate and diminish our shared cultural life.” Our shared cultural life? Does she mean the greasy rectangular pizza? Or the veritable killing fields that represent the way we get our fruit cups into the snack line? The protection of factory farming as “cultural life” is possibly the saddest piece of Flanagan’s argument.

Right after her condemnation of the terrible, back-breaking work that illegal immigrants do to supply the nation with produce, she gushes about the fresh bounty at Superior Super Warehouse in Compton. Where does she think the “dreamscape of strange and wonderful offerings: tomatillos, giant mangoes, cactus leaves, bunches of beets with their leaves on, chayote squash, red yams, yucca root” comes from? She also notes, “All of it was dirt cheap” without wondering why that might be.

Flanagan does plenty of criticizing when it comes to the sorry state of California public schools. Which is likely a very valid point; California has more problems than I can address here. Perhaps impoverished public schools there do need to spend more time and money on literacy programs than on gardens (though there’s no real cost-benefit analysis of the program in Flanagan’s article).

I’m not an education expert, but I do know exaggeration when I see it. Flanagan’s outlandish stabs — equating a school vegetable garden with slavery, the Red Scare and the abuse of illegal immigrants — is offensive to the pain those unique experiences cause to the American psyche. Furthermore, pinning all the various problems facing public schools on a silly little garden makes Flanagan sound downright paranoid. She talks in terms of indoctrination:

…it has been employed to cheat kids out of thousands of crucial learning hours over the years, so that they might be indoctrinated in whatever the fashionable idea of the moment or the school district might be. One year it’s hygiene and another it’s anti-Communism; in one city it’s safe-sex “outer-course,” and in another it’s abstinence-only education.

Flanagan’s wholesale attack on school vegetable gardens is clearly a product of misplaced rage. She’s angry at California, and Berkeley-ism specifically. She’s clearly sick of people talking about Michael Pollan’s latest book and urging her to see Food, Inc.

Waters’ “weird, almost erotic power she wields over a certain kind of educated, professional-class, middle-aged woman” certainly troubles Flanagan on a deep level. But keep in mind, she lives in the la-la-land of celebrity. If you don’t like it, don’t go eat at the fine dining establishments of celebrity cooks. I certainly don’t, and not for lack of opportunity (though perhaps partially for lack of money).

Flanagan shouldn’t let her distaste for Chez Panisse ruin the humble vegetable garden. Misplaced anger over outsized personalities won’t stop me from cultivating my veggie garden as an oasis in the big city, any more than the cults surrounding them could convince me that school gardens are a bad idea. A balanced curriculum is important, yes. And part of that lesson plan should include the acquisition of a balanced diet.

Maybe it’s because I live in the concrete jungle of Chicago, where greenery is tough to come by and food deserts are commonplace. Maybe it’s because, as a Midwesterner, I’m overjoyed every time the ground softens up each spring, begging to be planted after months of hibernation.

Whatever the reason behind it, I won’t put an end to the expansion of my stunted education in the art of feeding myself and those around me just because some frustrated woman in California thinks I’m a snot-nosed liberal elitist.


Originally published at BuzzFlash.com.

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