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Bringing Back the Victory Gardens

  • Marie Narlock

    Victory Gardens 2008+ is an organization that designs, builds, and maintains edible landscapes at a variety of sites through San Francisco, including the Slow Food Nation Victory Garden at SF’s Civic Center. Volunteers—experienced and novices alike—are needed throughout the year. Email your contact information and availability to info@slowfoodnation.org with “Victory Garden” in the subject line.
    It wasn’t so long ago that gardening was patriotic.
    The victory gardens grown throughout the United States, Canada, and Britain during World Wars I and II lessened the strain on public food supplies and provided a way for civilians to make a tangible contribution.
    In addition to buying war bonds and conserving raw materials, and with encouragement and guidance provided by the U.S. government, Americans planted and tended over 20 million war gardens during WW II, ultimately accounting for forty percent of all vegetables consumed in our country. This reduced the need for food rationing and enabled commercial agricultural producers and distributors—whose labor pool declined as workers went off to war—to focus on feeding the Allies abroad.
    It also enabled individuals to make a meaningful difference to their country and to their countrymen, many of whom had sent family members off to fight abroad. Unlike our current administration’s post-9/11 message of “get shopping,” the government’s post-crisis credo sixty years ago was “get growing.”
    Just twelve days after Pearl Harbor, a U.S. National Defense Gardening Conference was held and the Secretary of Agriculture set a goal of 10 million urban gardens and 5 million farm gardens for 1942. That goal was reached and even more gardens were grown the next year.
    The National War Garden Commission was created to educate and motivate Americans to leave no empty plot unturned and unplanted. Uncultivated plots were derisively called “slacker land.” Corporate America echoed the call, as did private foundations, schools, and seed companies. “Sow the Seeds of Victory,” one of Uncle Sam’s posters blared. “Our Food is Fighting” declared another. A more comical placard urged Americans to “can vegetables, fruit, and the Kaiser too.”
    Spurred by these messages, families replaced lawns with Buttercrunch lettuce, De Cicco broccoli, and Blue Lake beans. They tucked Sugar Daddy peas in their ornamental beds, Butternut squash in vacant lots, and Sugar Baby watermelons in decrepit baseball fields. A few trail blazers worked side-by-side at community gardens—the first of their kind. In 1943, Eleanor Roosevelt tore up the White House lawn and served as inspiration and example.
    These gardens were grown before the age of synthetic fertilizers and weed whackers, let alone chemical weed killers. Bagged compost and drip irrigation systems were nonexistent. Instead, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers and sisters grabbed their shovels, their picks, their wheelbarrows and – quite literally – dug in.
    San Francisco Victory Gardens, past and present
    Our forefathers left more than their hearts in San Francisco. Thanks to temperate climate and get-involved leanings, San Franciscans grew some of the best and biggest victory gardens in the country, with hundreds of side-by-side plots lining Golden Gate Park and many more dotting the hilly neighborhood terrain. The City doled out free water, seeds, and access to tools, and residents took to the cause like their military counterparts in battle.
    Never the City to shy away from a good party, San Franciscans danced in the streets at Victory Garden Fairs—and crowned a Victory Garden queen. Most every public park in San Francisco included a food garden, and City Hall was transformed into a landscape filled with lettuces, herbs, and a multitude of delicious vegetables.
    Which is just what’s growing there today!
    Today we have another excuse to dance in the street: volunteers from Victory Gardens 2008+ have transformed City Hall once again. Gone are the water-gulping grass and boring green shrubs. Today’s landscape is teaming with colorful, healthy food that will feed residents from all walks of life through local food banks and meals programs. Funding comes from a variety of organizations such as Slow Food Nation, and guidance and passion comes from leaders like Alice Waters, SF artist Amy Franceschini, and Mayor Gavin Newsom himself.
    Although there certainly aren’t any shortages of wars out there right now—and food rationing is fortunately a thing of the past—this revival comes with a broadened definition of “victory” to mean “growing food at home for increased local food security and to reduce the food miles associated with the average American meal, not to mention (as) a way of saving money during a time of economic instability.”
    In light of the fact that today’s food typically travels 1,500 miles from field to table, it’s not difficult to imagine the benefits (including taste!) that locally-grown food provides. It also reminds us how history shows that planting a garden can be a satisfying, peaceful act of patriotism.
    Ecologically sound, socially just, economically helpful, historically symbolic: victory gardens make an impact during wartime—and anytime.