Nancy Sleeth, co-founder of Blessed Earth, writes her thoughts on the benefits of school and church gardens and provides some tips for getting started.
While recently relaxing on a friend’s back porch over a spicy vegetarian stew and homemade bread, the conversation naturally turned to food. Everyone around the table expressed concern over how much junk food kids eat and how little time children spend outdoors. Our host said that, every afternoon, she notices a group of elementary schoolchildren walking to the corner market to purchase their after-school snack. Each child comes out with a super-sized soda and a bag of potato chips. Not a small bag, but a family-size portion for each child, every day.
A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine tracks more than 120,000 people and their eating habits for a period of up to two decades. In the study, potato chip consumption was identified as the number one culprit in weight gain.
Two-thirds of American adults are now obese or overweight. Childhood obesity has tripled in the last three decades. If these children were eating actual potatoes after school instead of potato chips, their risk factors for diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease would decrease significantly.
Do today’s schoolchildren connect the puffy fried wafers that come out of a cellophane bag with the spuds we buy from the produce section? Do they know that potatoes grow underground? With no backyard garden, would they recognize potato “eyes”? Have they seen white potato flowers swaying in a summer breeze?
So many urban and suburban children have never witnessed the miracle of watching one seed potato produce a handful of Yukon Gold. They may never experience the treasure of unearthing a dozen small “new” potatoes for dinner, or the springtime joy of stumbling upon stray potatoes that escaped last fall’s harvest.
Oh, if every church and school had a garden, how different this world might be! Caring for a garden provides something that cannot be purchased at the grocery store: the satisfaction of eating food planted, tended and harvested with our own hands. A garden cultivates gratitude, reminding us that every ounce of food that passes our lips ultimately comes from God. And a garden keeps us humble, constantly aware that the enemy—entropy—is very much alive.
If you don’t already have a garden, plant a few vegetables this year. By using compost to enrich your soil, watering your plants early in the morning, weeding regularly and rotating your crops, you can have a healthy organic garden that supplies your family with fresh-from-the-vine vegetables all summer long.
Some first steps: If you have never had a vegetable garden before, start small. Just a ten-by-ten space can grow a lot of produce, especially if you train your vines to grow vertically. Begin with vegetables you know your family likes—if they don’t like beets or radishes, don’t bother, even though they are easy to grow. When you get more experienced, you can try introducing some fun varieties, such as blue potatoes or sun-loving tomatillos, which mature in a paper-like husk. And don’t forget the herbs: they are simple to grow, don’t take up much space and add color and flavor to almost every meal.
If your family likes fruit as much as mine does, talk to your local nursery or extension service to find out which trees grow well in your area. Fruit trees are a long-term investment, with money-saving productivity for years to come. Add a few blueberry, raspberry or blackberry bushes if they flourish in your climate. For detailed guides on horticulture, check out the master publication list at ATTRA.
If you do not have access to a yard, start with patio planters or investigate community gardens. Join a CSA (community-supported agriculture) and barter labor for part of your “share.” If gardening is not an option, you can still support local vegetable stands, farmers’ markets and co-ops. The United States has more than 4,500 farmers’ markets, about 80 per state. Buying local food cuts down on the fuel used to transport your fruits and veggies from other parts of the world.
Finally, you can educate yourself about the benefits of gardening, both physical and spiritual. Watch a documentary like Food, Inc. or Forks Over Knives to learn about the food industry your garden will help you avoid. To learn about the connections between gardening and God, try reading books like Year of Plenty by Craig L. Goodwin or To Garden With God by Christine Sine. Go deeper by attending helpful conferences, like Summoned Toward Wholeness, a conference on food, farming and the life of faith. Most importantly, be sure to take the time to enjoy the fruits (or vegetables!) of your labor with family and friends. Remember, community started in a garden—as so many good things do.
Nancy Sleeth is the co-founder and managing director of Blessed Earth, a creation care nonprofit. She is the author of Almost Amish: One Woman’s Quest for a Slower, Simpler, More Sustainable Life.