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Summon Us to Service: Ask Americans to Grow Victory Gardens

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Gardening catalogs are jamming my mailbox, promising a bounty of good eating later this spring and summer. I've resisted buying much; like others, the economy gives me jitters. Not that I'm without hope about the economy or the potential of gardens in this administration. Especially the latter, as the new residents of the White House look favorably on sustainable food systems. They just hired a chef who's interested in fresh and local foods, and what's more fresh and local than a garden?

In hard times, Americans have always turned to gardening.

The Victory Gardens of World War I and World War II -- and the garden efforts of the Great Depression -- helped Americans weather hard times. These gardens helped the family budget; improved dietary practices; reduced the food mile and saved fuel; enabled America to export more food to our allies; beautified communities; empowered every citizen to contribute to a national effort; and bridged social, ethnic, class and cultural differences during times when cooperation was vital. Gardens were an expression of solidarity, patriotism, and shared sacrifice. They were everywhere...schools, homes, workplaces, and throughout public spaces all over the nation. No effort was too small. Americans did their bit. And it mattered.

Consider this: In WWI, the Federal Bureau of Education rolled out a national school garden program and funded it with War Department monies. Millions of students gardened at school, at home, and in their communities. A national Liberty Garden (later Victory Garden) program was initiated that called on all Americans to garden for the nation and the world. The success of home gardeners (and careful food preservation) helped the U.S. increase exports to our starving European Allies.

The WWII experience was equally successful. During 1943, some polls reported that 3/5ths of Americans were gardening, including Vice President Henry Wallace, who gardened with his son. That same year, according to some estimates, nearly 40% of the fresh fruits and vegetables consumed stateside were grown in school, home and community gardens. In addition to providing much-needed food, gardening helped Americans unite around a positive activity. Gardens gave all Americans a way to provide service to the nation, enabling citizens on the home front to make significant contributions to the war effort.

Our nation has many needs right now. Families are economically insecure. Communities are food-insecure. Obesity is epidemic; the figures on childhood obesity are particularly disturbing. We have a tenuous connection with the land, and a poor understanding of our food system. Environmental concerns -- and declining oil supplies -- dictate a need to recreate more sustainable and local food systems. And Americans have proven that they are hungry for change, eager to re-engage with their neighbors, their communities, and their nation. Our new President has summoned us to service, and we're eager to respond.

A revival of the successful national gardening programs of the past could help in myriad ways, and the infrastructure for such a program is already in place. The educational materials that support school, home and community gardens are available through existing government agencies and private organizations. And, as I've suggested to new Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack via the Huffington Post, thousands of highly-trained volunteer Master Gardeners (who serve under the USDA's umbrella, through land grant institutions) can be called upon to share their expertise with school, home and community gardeners.

To begin to make this a reality, all President Obama needs to do is ask. Summon us to service. Encourage those who can to plant a garden for the spring/summer season of 2009. Summon us to service. Ask us to plant for our families and our communities; to grow a row for the hungry; to share any extra produce with food banks. Summon your family to this effort; set an example by planting a vegetable garden on the White House lawn, a wonderful idea proposed at Eat the View by Maine's Roger Doiron, a gardener and citizen extraordinaire.

Mr. President, we're hungry for change, and the revival of a national Victory Garden campaign can give us the kind of change we can dig into. Please, Mr. President: Summon us to service.

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