Everyone is talking about the latest stimulus package. As many grit their teeth over the omission of Obama's proposed salary cap, others, like the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), are taking the opportunity to shame banks like Goldman Sachs for spending billions of stimulus dollars on bonuses while the vast majority of the employees of Burger King, owned by GS, live below the poverty line.
As the debate continues about the diversion of all that money - and how can it best prop up our sagging economy - one answer is in "shovel-ready projects," that is, improvement projects that are ready to go within 90 days.
And as the weather begins to warm, in fits and starts, my thoughts turn to the most shovel-ready projects of all: community gardens. And as record numbers of Americans apply for food stamps and trickle into the nation's already-strapped food banks, it seems like these projects should have high priority, too.
(Photo: A tunnel to a more delicious future, otherwise known as a hoophouse -- it's tough to grow tomatoes in Olympia without one)
Last September, I was in Olympia, Washington and was invited to a fundraiser for the city's Garden Raised Bounty (GRuB) program, which runs an urban farm that puts at-risk youths to work growing food, managing a small community supported agriculture (CSA) program, delivering fresh vegetables to food banks and installing raised-bed gardens in the yards of low-income families.
Luckily, the fundraiser took place while the economy was faltering but not yet in free fall, and the program managed to add a sizable chunk of change to their coffers. Would that have been possible in the months since then? I'd guess not, but who knows? In any case, it will be money well spent.
A close friend of mine who sits on the board at GRuB pronounced its work one of the only things she knew of that was "just simply good," and after hearing some of the youths speak about the program, I was equally convinced. Tyiana Mechtley, a young woman who had "expected the job to be easy money" spoke at the fundraiser about how her work at GRuB has changed her:
That [first] day, I planted the first seed I can ever remember planting. Planting that seed was a different kind of experience for me. It was kind of breathtaking because it made me want to be responsible and take care of something for the first time.
As my time with GRuB continued, my eyes and ears opened to the earth and its capabilities. I learned how we could use the earth to better people. I took care of the land and made sure everything was able to live there. I learned how the earth works, and how to put it to good use. I learned how to use the earth to cure world hunger.
Last year, a similar project in Milwaukee earned urban farmer Will Allen the "genius grant," also known as a McCarthy Fellowship. His program, Growing Power, is one of the best known in the country and serves as a working model for those who would build a more functional local food system, one that doesn't squander rapidly diminishing fossil fuels or put small farmers out of business. As Allen points out, rural family farms, once passed down through generations, are a dying breed and in many if not most cases, the next generation has opted for greener pastures, which means that most of tomorrow's farmers, if we are to have any, will come from urban environments.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention here the fact that our new Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, "broke pavement" outside USDA headquarters on Lincoln's 200th birthday, with a promise to install gardens outside each USDA office worldwide. Some have suggested the gesture was an empty one -- a photo op, if you will -- while others, including Vilsack's advisor Neil Hamilton, suggest we may soon see a similar project on the White House Lawn (and if the op-ed Roger Doiron of Kitchen Gardeners International landed in last Sunday's Chicago Tribune is any indication, I'd say he's right -- I wrote about Doiron's project, Eat the View and its more mobile counterpart, the WHO Farm a few months ago here).
Suffice it to say that I hope the USDA doesn't stop with a little greenery for show -- in fact, the coolest thing that could happen outside the USDA or on the White House Lawn would be a project modeled after GRuB or Growing Power, as these are not just symbolic plots, they are projects that actually feed people who need help, and just as importantly, they are planting seeds of hope, imparting valuable skills and deepening a connection to food and by extension, the land it grows upon.
I'm not advocating here that these projects receive a piece of the stimulus pie, although I would say they deserve it. GRuB has received federal grants in the past and to my knowledge, is not at risk for folding. But all of these programs rely on the support of the local communities they, in turn, give back to. To me, GRuB is an example of some of the best work we can create to support people who are often left to fend for themselves, namely youths, the poor (a group that seems to be growing by the day) and the tenders of the soil. These programs will no doubt gladly take donations in money or time, so if you've got some to spare, go help out! These are investments that promise to pay off.
(photo: Sunlight filtered by grape leaves under an arbor at the GRuB Farm.)
To paint a clearer picture of the impact of the GRuB program on the youths it employs, here is Tyiana's entire speech from last fall's fundraiser.
Hi my name is Tyiana Mechtley and I work at Grub. When I first started the job, I expect the job to be easy money. I would go there and they would tell me to work and then I would get paid and that's all I thought I would do. Then my first day came along. And my whole outlook on the program changed.
My first day at GRuB the weather was really sunny and bright. But for me, on the inside, I was cloudy and rainy and scared. I was like one of those days where it'd be sunny for ten minutes, then a huge rainstorm would blow in, then it would get sunny again. That day, I planted the first seed I can ever remember planting. Planting that seed was a different kind of experience for me. It was kind of breathtaking because it made me want to be responsible and take care of something for the first time.
I put that seed in the sun. I watered it. I moved it into a bigger pot so it was comfortable. In a week I could see the seed I planted that fist day at grub start to sprout. I had a feeling that the plant was going to grow big and strong. And that I was going to help it do that. With GRuB during that first week, I felt nervous and excited. I was eager to see how the rest of the summer was going to progress.
Like I took care of my plant, GRuB took care of me. The told me how the summer was going to be, what we were going to do. The staff offered space to give us a voice and give our input on what the summer was going to be like.
As my time with GRuB continued, my eyes and ears opened to the earth and its capabilities. I learned how we could use the earth to better people. I took care of the land and made sure everything was able to live there. I learned how the earth works, and how to put it to good use. I learned how to use the earth to cure world hunger. Working with the earth made me a better person. I learned to care for myself as well as others around me.
By midsummer that little seed was sprouting leaves, it was putting down roots. It was taller. It was becoming a mature plant. I would look at it all the time to make sure there weren't any bugs, or any weeds - I can't stand weeds - I didn't even know what weeds were before I came to GRuB. Now I know and I can identify them.
By the end of the summer program, I stepped out of my box and was able to trust myself and put my trust into other people. GRuB provided me with a safe and comfortable environment. This made me want to push myself and work harder and be all I can be. I wanted to start caring about myself more, making sure that what I was putting into my body wasn't going to hurt me. I let down the guard I've had for my whole life. It made me feel better. No one judged me when I let go. They were just supportive.
At GRuB, everyone is just happy and full of life. They don't let things get to them like I did. They didn't want to hurt themselves. They didn't let people make them second-guess themselves. They accept people for who they are and where they are at in their lives. Everyone is equal and great and wonderful, and everyone is welcome here - no matter what.
I still have that plant. To this day, my plant is still healthy and growing.
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