Caitlin Flanagan Mows Down School Gardens

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Caitlin Flanagan’s new hit piece in The Atlantic suggests that school gardens are no more than modern-day sharecropping programs, shuttling Hispanic youth to migrant labor rather than higher education and academic excellence. The ever-incendiary mouthpiece of the reactionary does get some things right: It’s true that Alice Waters’ cachet—she’s close with the Clintons, Prince Charles has toured the grounds of her Edible Schoolyard—has meant school gardens have gained in resources, in visibility, and in coverage exponentially since the 90s. Also true that Waters takes a “foodie first” approach, she wants kids to learn about food, but not just any food, foie gras on every plate is more like it, which isn’t all that practical and replicable (the latter my point, not Flanagan’s). She also points to the rapid rise of school garden programs even in the face of dwindling state budgets, a result of gardens being buoyed financially for their obesity-fighting, nutrition-teaching features. (This is true, but much of this funding comes from foundations, so it’s not like schools are cutting history classes to buy garden hoes.)

On the whole, like in many of Flanagan’s pieces, she’s more inflammatory than thoughtful, or even evidence-based. She points to the fact that kids in California schools are floundering, and to the fact that gardens are on the upswing, and concludes that gardens do kids no favors when it comes to prepping them to step out of serfdom. She distills the “fad” down to a simple question, wondering how gardens will make kids smarter:

Here is the essential question we must ask about the school gardens: What evidence do we have that participation in one of these programs—so enthusiastically supported, so uncritically championed—improves a child’s chances of doing well on the state tests that will determine his or her future (especially the all-important high-school exit exam) and passing Algebra I, which is becoming the make-or-break class for California high-school students? I have spent many hours poring over the endless research on the positive effects of garden curricula, and in all that time, I have yet to find a single study that suggests classroom gardens help students meet the state standards for English and math. Our kids are working in these gardens with the promise of a better chance at getting an education and a high-school diploma but without one bit of proof that their hard work will result in either. We should remember, by the way, that the California high-school exit exam, which so many are failing, is hardly onerous: it requires a mastery of eighth-grade math (students need to score a mere 55 percent on that portion of the test) and 10th-grade English language and composition (on which they need to score 60 percent or higher). And so I would say this to our state’s new child farm laborers: ¡Huelga! Strike!

But are kids really working in the garden with the promise of a diploma? Are other electives, such as arts and music and home ec (something Flanagan is surely a fan of) and community service held up to the standard of improving standardized test scores? Or are they opportunities for kids to learn in different ways—outside, with their hands, their taste buds—ways which ultimately can help their academic pursuits. Get some nutritious food in a kid before noon and see how that helps them concentrate throughout the day. Further, most garden programs don’t exact manual labor from their minions, instead they teach kids about the food they’re growing and eating to help them make healthy choices. And no one’s saying that gardens should take the place of Algebra, more like P.E. if anything, and I don’t think even Flanagan would argue that that swap would lead to better outcomes. There are evaluations of school gardens, but none that I see that are zeroing in on whether outdoor education is a panacea for poor test scores. I agree that evaluations are good, but let’s not expect a mountain from a molehill. Gardens can help, and do, and they aren’t gateway activities for migrant labor; that’s just silly, and doesn’t really merit 3,500 words in The Atlantic.

Over at Grist, Tom Philphott responds:

Her point seems to be this: working the land and cooking are lowly tasks, work that should be fled and not aspired to. It’s unconscionable to urge Latino students, some of whose parents may work as migrant laborers, to garden as a form of learning. Students, particularly those struggling with basic reading and math, should be forced to hit the books, not weed the carrots.

That line of reasoning seems brutally reductionist—and certainly doesn’t reflect my own experience as a remedial teacher. More importantly, Flanagan makes no effort to actually engage the program she is trashing (or, indeed, the book she’s ostensibly reviewing—her piece is ludicrously packaged as a review of Thomas McNamee’s 2008 biography of Alice Waters).

And the idea that farming and cooking—and even getting one’s hands dirty in the garden—are beneath respectable middle-class aspiration is deeply problematic. Such thinking reinforces an unjust food system that exploits cheap labor as a matter of course, propped up by a largely invisible army of migrant workers who do the dirty work of tending fields,  slaughterhouses, and kitchens.

Since Flanagan didn’t bother to talk with any educators herself, here’s my husband’s reaction to the article (he’s been a garden educator for 6 years, teaching K-12 about nutrition and health via a nearly 2-acre garden in Bay Point, California, a much less well-heeled outfit than Edible):

-Edible Schoolyard is a high-profile, unique program that is tied to a very specific, Waters vision. Many other programs strip out the haute cuisine focus and go practical, responding to what communities need. Do your homework and talk to some people if you’re going to end with sweeping conclusions.

-The national education crisis comes down to many things: overcrowded classrooms, overworked/underpaid/underqualified teachers, teaching to the test, insert-reason-here, school gardens are the least of our worries.

-Correlating performance of Hispanic and African American students to their participation in garden programs is absurd; there are systemic issues to address to improve performance but the problem exists whether there are school gardens or not.

-Gardens feed kids who are taking tests. Let’s be honest, school lunches pretty much suck, and lots of kids wouldn’t know a stalk of kale if it hit them in the face, so cooking and picking and growing foods that are healthy and nutritious helps their overall health.

-Experiential learning can only go so far inside a classroom. Being outside, in the fresh air, using your hands, tasting with your mouth what you’re learning about, gets kids excited to come to school. Some of them at least, and that’s saying something.

The myopic view that a better use of elective time would improve student test scores is not really worth debating. Art and music are wonderful, and it’s a shame that they are not as foundation-trendy as school gardens, but evaluation findings haven’t shown that these programs are the key to kids’ success, either. Sure, the sustainable food movement has a lot to answer for, and those of us who pedastalize Michael Pollan, Alice Waters, et al (and those in the school garden biz) need to step back and ask hard questions about what’s worth our time and dollar, but declaring the school garden movement a failure based on conjecture and on a single program is a colossal waste of ink.



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