Monday, March 15, 2010

A silly, unfortunate trend is taking hold in our nation’s public schools: gardening. Of course, there is nothing wrong with gardening on its own - in fact, an increase in any amount of physical activity may go some way toward countering an alarming childhood obesity epidemic - but when a hobby such as plucking vegetables out of patches of dirt elbows out subjects of intellect such as literature and mathematics, that’s cause for some dismay.

For the past 15 years, increasing numbers of California public schools have been cultivating little organic oases using students as the gardeners. Funding for this exploit comes primarily from the Chez Panisse Foundation, the nonprofit that Berkeley, Calif., restaurateur Alice Waters created shortly after spearheading her first “Edible Schoolyard” at a Berkeley middle school to give schoolchildren “experiences in school kitchens, gardens, and lunchrooms, and … [to provide] healthy, freshly prepared meals as part of each school day.” Students now plant in, weed and fertilize these plots, eat what they grow and receive lessons having to do with gardening and food preparation.

“In English class students composed recipes, in math they measured the garden beds, and in history they ground corn as a way of studying pre-Colombian civilizations,” writes Caitlin Flanagan in “Cultivating Failure,” a piece about the program in the January/February edition of the Atlantic, referring the school where Ms. Waters pioneered the program. “Students’ grades quickly improved … which makes sense, given that a recipe is much easier to write than a coherent paragraph on “The Crucible.”

Nearly 4,000 California public schools have such gardens, and other states have been catching onto the trend. This summer, the Brooklyn, N.Y., Arturo Toscanini School will get a quarter-acre organic garden, a mobile greenhouse and a “kitchen classroom.” New Orleans has had its own Edible Schoolyard program since 2005, with students from two local schools participating. According to the Chez Panisse Foundation’s Web site, students who visit and work in the New Orleans garden - recently updated to include a citrus grove, a “seasonal row crops” area and an outdoor classroom - learn about “both the history and role of Creole cooking in New Orleans and foods indigenous to the region.” They also “interview family cooks, professional chefs, and farmers, and participate in hands-on Creole cooking classes led by family cooks and professional chefs.”

All this would be lovely if these youngsters were in their late teens or early 20s and enrolled in culinary school. But they are neither. They are children and still too young to make decisions about careers, which is the direction in which this sort of instruction seems to be trying to take them. Their academic careers ought to be just that: academic, not agricultural. Instead of making deliberately regressive moves, we should be celebrating the technological advancements that have largely replaced back-breaking manual field labor in this country.

The foundation site makes the case that such programs constitute steps against “diet-related disease” and mentions the problem of overweight children and adolescents. True, American children are too fat - according to the American Heart Association, approximately one-third of white, black and Mexican-American youngsters qualify as overweight - but weight gain, much to the frustration of many hungry dieters, is a simple matter of calories ingested versus calories expended. It has nothing to do with the manner in which a food was raised or grown. Free-range beef, for example, is no less calorie-heavy than its conventionally cultivated counterparts.

Yet the online “wish list” for the cafeteria program at the New Orleans Edible Schoolyard - which incorporates the garden foods into daily menus for the students - includes two ice-cream makers and three mini-torches for making creme-brulee. You don’t have to be a nutritionist to know both these desserts are extremely high in calories. It is only wishful thinking to believe that preparing them with “natural” ingredients will make them any less caloric.

This rather self-indulgent, back-to-nature gardening push may be well-meaning, but it will only shortchange American kids, who already are behind the students of other nations in multiple subject areas. Upon graduation to high school, these students may be able to grind grains handily with a pestle or give a brief history of Creole cuisine, but chances are rather high that there will be something of a gap in their intellectual ability - and they will be none the slimmer for it.

Anath Hartmann is letters editor for The Washington Times.

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