Organic as a label vs. organic as a practice
Learning to grow your own food is a good way to save money, especially if you grow organic food, since these days organic food is in much demand. As they have become more popular, the ‘branding’ of organics has come to mean an elitist marketing niche. Organic fruits and vegetables are usually priced higher than ‘conventional’ produce and are often available only in specialty stores. However, ‘organics’ can be a misleading term when it comes to their marketing by ‘big business’. Other confusing terms such as ‘all natural’ or ‘whole foods’, are meaningless because there’s no set definition of what they really mean. Whatever name is used, this new boom in sales has more to do with promoting an expensive product to an elitist market than with providing clean, safe and wholesome food that everyone can afford.
In the garden we aim for the latter benefit by practicing organic growing methods. We learn hands-on that organic urban agriculture is all about creating good soil: we avoid the use of chemical pesticides and depend on our own organic compost to feed the soil and nourish the growing plants. Children who participate in Green Thumbs programs often start their experience in the garden by putting food scraps in the compost bins. We hope that children, their teachers and their families, come away from our programs with an understanding of organic foods not as expensive and trendy but as local, fresh and at our fingertips in the urban gardens where compost and community participation play important roles. School gardens are good places in which to demonstrate that the best way to be certain about the quality of food you consume is not by how it’s labelled or marketed, but by growing it yourself!
Having organic foods growing in school gardens makes them accessible to children and families who would not otherwise be able to afford them in high-priced stores. In addition, we think it’s important to provide a working model for an affordable food garden, rebutting the perception of gardening as an expensive hobby. We promote the idea that anyone can get involved in growing food, and it doesn’t mean shopping for plants at a fancy garden store.
In our programs, we make an effort to develop and teach low-cost ways of growing food. For example, recycling bins in the streets are full of items that can easily be converted to gardening tools and growing equipment. Five-gallon buckets from restaurants, with a few holes in the bottom, make excellent growing containers, in restricted backyards or on balconies, for veggies such as peppers, eggplants or herbs. Small take-out lunch containers or transparent plastic boxes in which berries have been packaged can be transformed into mini greenhouses for growing seedlings. One day we didn’t have enough trowels for a large group of children to mix soil and fill pots for planting, so we collected small plastic water bottles and cut them open at the bottom so they could be used as recycled trowels. Teaching how to save seed from year to year is a good way to reduce the cost of buying seeds. Aside from seeds collected in the garden, the kids learn that they can collect seeds from some foods after eating them – e.g. apples, lemons, avocados, mangoes, dates, and others. At Winchester School the Ya-Li pear trees grew from seed that kids saved after they ate the pears in an after-school program. Add to all this the rich, fertile compost we make ourselves on site, and you can see there’s no end to ideas for saving, reusing and recycling in the garden.