Today, the Senate passed a bipartisan revision of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act. The House of Representatives has passed its own rewrite, setting up what could be a heated debate over NCLB’s fate. Passed in 2001, NCLB was intended “to close the achievement gap with accountability, flexibilty, and choice, so that no child is left behind.”

I’ve often felt that we are leaving many of our nation’s children behind by not providing an adequate education for them about the food system in a broad sense, including food production, nutrition and healthy lifestyle, environmental education and food justice. I’d love to see a spiraled curriculum that enables students to put into practice what they’re learning and to acquire practical skills that they’ll carry through their lifetime. Equipping and empowering young people to ask critical questions about the food system is vital. Effective and positive engagement requires education.

My daughter was fortunate to be enrolled in Ventura Unified School District (VUSD), which has had a nationally recognized farm-to-school and nutrition education program for many years. My daughter gardened in her classroom nearly every week for six years. Her middle school had a garden and she was supported to think critically about nutrition and take action on issues important to her by teachers there. Throughout her years in VUSD, she received nutrition education on a regular basis, had access to farm-fresh salad bars … and more. My daughter is at college now and making healthy food choices. I’m also confident that she’ll be able to put those basic gardening skills to work when she chooses to.

Certainly at the college level, food systems courses and programs are being offered with greater frequency. (One of my favorites is UC Berkeley’s Edible Education 101 course; watch the videos here). I am optimistic that we’ll ultimately have a more food-literate nation in the future as a result of these efforts.

However, I think we need to begin the educational process earlier and in a more coherent fashion. There is at least a partial historical precedent for this, in the form of the United States School Garden Army (USSGA), a World War I era program. The USSGA was an effort that provided one of the first nationally promoted curricula, through the Federal Bureau of Education, which is now the Department of Education.

The USSGA was started in 1917 as a way to encourage gardening among children in school, home and community settings. It targeted primarily urban and suburban youth. By encouraging children to garden – and as part of larger Liberty/Victory Garden and food conservation efforts – the U.S. government hoped that a food crisis might be averted and that America’s food system might become more locally oriented and sustainable. The USSGA was funded by the War Department; food was, and still is, an issue of national security. By Armistice Day, several million children had answered the nation’s call to service, enlisting as “Soldiers of the Soil.” (A note: I don’t value the highly militarized rhetoric surrounding the program, but that was a reflection of the nation’s wartime footing).

Edward Penfield (1866-1925). American Lithographic Company, 1918.
Edward Penfield (1866-1925). American Lithographic Company, 1918.

Thus, in the summer of 1917, in the quiet Los Angeles suburb of Long Beach, an elementary student named Harriet Johns harvested “exactly 1,769 beans from four stalks, raised from as many seeds,” growing them on a vacant lot owned by her neighbor, Mrs. Charles Bate.* From Portland, Oregon, to Portland, Maine, children like Harriet gardened.

The USSGA curriculum taught mostly urban and suburban youth highly practical skills in gardening. What was taught in school was encouraged to be applied at home. The program not only emphasized practical skills, but also used gardening as a means to extend and enhance the school curriculum in other areas, including reading, writing and arithmetic. The USSGA curriculum even included components focusing on the arts, including the production of a theatrical “pageant.”

But the program also sought to instill what its creators viewed as positive character traits in children. Per the Bureau of Education, the USSGA would “train school children in thrift, industry, service, patriotism and responsibility.” An ethos the program sought to create was “citizenship through service.”

At the curriculum’s heart was an educational purpose that focuses on the most fundamental of things: food. Wouldn’t this be of value to us today?

You can learn more about the USSGA by reading this University of California monograph.

* “Crop Prolific on Small Lot: Jack’s Wonderful Beanstalk Has Little, if Anything, on Harriet’s,” The Los Angeles Times, September 2, 1917, p. II 1.