There were fourteen 3-year-olds in the preschool class at the community center where I worked. About half came to school every morning with a bag of hot chips and a can a grape soda passing as breakfast.
“We serve a nice, hot breakfast every morning,” I’d remind the young moms and dads, trying to discourage this habit.
They would smile politely, and ignore me. Their kids wouldn’t eat our breakfasts, and no one knew it better than I did. They wouldn’t eat scrambled eggs or yogurt or oatmeal. It was sugary loops or powered donuts or nothing.
The battle would continue at lunch, when mashed potatoes were grudgingly accepted, but carrots and green beans and tomatoes all hit the trash. “Yuck” was the word I heard most often, right after “Mine!” and “No!”
At our weekly parent meetings, parents would urge us to serve the children hot dogs or chicken nuggets, french fries or pudding cups. But we continued to resist. Just like we resisted turning on the TV, and spending too much time in the computer lab.
Getting this video game generation outside to play was just as exhausting as getting them to eat real food. It was too hot, or too cold. It was boring. Why can’t we watch a movie? The grass itches. The slide is too small or the monkey bars are too high.
Our aging playground was serviceable — even if we did have to rake the sand once a week for drug needles or beer bottles or used condoms — and the vacant lot was perfect for playing kickball, when the city remembered to mow. We made do.
One night, we invited a guest speaker to our parent group to talk about nutrition. She told us we were living in a “food desert” and started explaining its technical definition. A few parents looked at me in confusion.
“It means,” I interrupted, “that you can walk around this neighborhood and buy all the heroin you want, but you can’t buy a head of lettuce.”
A soft voice in the back of the room asked a simple question.
Why isn’t there any food in this neighborhood? Why are there fast food joints and overpriced gas station markets and church soup kitchens, but no grocery stores? No farmer’s markets? No real food?
Why can I step outside and flag down a drug dealer, but I need two busses to get to a grocery store?
The meeting ended shortly thereafter, but the thought didn’t go away.
Why not? Why don’t the people who live here have access to real food? Like a grain of sand trapped in an oyster, the question began to burn and writhe.
Why the hell not?
On my way home, I counted eight vacant lots around the community center. Lots that were formerly homes and families. Wasted space that was now filled with weeds or litter or abandoned cars.
Eight of them in a 4-block stretch. We only needed one — and not even all of that. Just a few square yards to plant something. What?
“They don’t eat beans,” the preschool teacher reminded me. I hadn’t forgotten. But they didn’t eat anything, so we might as well start with something easy. And considering I’d once killed a virtually indestructible aloe plant, easy was crucial.
We planted pole beans. One plump seed per child. We scraped away the weeds and dumped some potting soil from the dollar store on the hard, grey soil and made some holes. (Our lessons about soil contamination were far in the future.) Maybe, we thought, if they did the planting and the watering … maybe if they watched the beans grow … maybe if we read them bean stories and practiced writing “B” in the dirt with our fingers and dreamed up bean recipes … maybe they’d at least taste something green.
Looking back, it wasn’t much of a plan.
Until those little magic beans started to grow.
“Can we go outside and check on our beans?”
“Will it grow all the way up to the sky, like in the story (Jack and the Beanstalk)?”
“Look! Mine is the biggest!”
Soon the older kids in after-school program and summer camp were out in the garden as well. We needed their big-kid muscles; there was no water faucet outside, so they formed a bucket brigade every day to water the plants.
Over the next two years, the garden spread like wildfire. We badgered the city into donating 3 more vacant lots. We designed one just for education, where we taught history by studying the food traditions of other cultures. In our Victory Garden, we planted turnips and cabbages and beets, and learned about European immigrants. In our Three Sisters Ridge, we planted corn and squash and beans togther, like the Native Peoples of Illinois. In our Huck Patch, we feasted on collard greens and okra and yams, and we studied slavery and civil rights. Our Cocina Mexicana taught us lessons about our Mexican neighbors to go along with the tomatillos and cilantro. Even our herb garden gave us intriguing ideas about natural healing.
On the other lots, we grew vegetables. Broccoli and tomatoes and 8 kinds of lettuce, and peas and peppers and melons. We had no idea what we were doing. What needed full sun? What needed shade? Why are the leaves yellow? Who planted the onions upside down?
Still, like magic, everything kept growing.
We sent the kids outside to pick salad for their own lunches. We sent veggies home with them. We invited curious neighbors over to help us weed — and eat. The local newspaper took notice of this little garden in a high-crime, low-income neighborhood and ran a story. Our city councilman came for lunch, then the mayor, then a United States Congressman.
Then, unbelievably, First Lady Michelle Obama invited the children to the White House to tour her Kitchen Garden.
All we wanted was for the kids to stop eating hot chips and grape soda for breakfast. And for the people who lived around the center to have some real food. So we planted some beans in a vacant lot.
They turned out to be magic beans.
Turns out — like magic — we were able to unplug our kids from their video games and get their bodies in the sun and their hands in the soil.
Turns out — like magic — while we were arguing about whose turn it was to water the cucumbers, and whether the tomatoes had blossom rot, and if the squirrels ate the corn — we were learning some other stuff too.
Yes, we were learning about the environment and plant life cycles and soil temperatures.
But we were also learning how to argue without name-calling.
How to resolve our conflicts with our words, instead of our fists. Or our guns.
How to respect other people’s space, other people’s feelings, other people’s contributions, no matter how small.
We were learning that we could create something new with our own hands.
We were learning how to grow community.
While the kids are planting collards and squash and peppers, they’re also planting the seeds of change. They’re cultivating new ways of thinking, nurturing new ideas about how their lives — and their community — can be someday.
And while it was a spectacular experience for them to shake hands with the mayor and to visit the White House, none of that compares to what happens regularly now in our parent meetings:
“Can you tell me please, what is Swiss Chard? And exactly how do I cook it?”
“We made zucchini bread with the squashes Matt brought home last week.”
“I’ve got too many tomatoes! Somebody trade me some jalapenos?”
And what happens regularly now in our lunch room:
“Can I have some more salad, please?”
One of the fifth graders wrote a thank you letter to Michelle Obama which said, “I really like your garden. But ours is a lot bigger than yours. We have a lot more people to feed I guess.”
I guess we do. Growing food and sharing food can change the world.
The garden in this story provides food to about 40 families during the growing season, and was recently selected as an Obama Legacy Initiative Site.