Thursday, April 8, 2010

Family Gardens: A Lesson in Sustainability

As soon as the weather warms up, and the birds start singing, my mind immediately wanders to thoughts of planting my vegetable garden. The pleasant association between spring and garden has been with me since childhood. I have many wonderful memories of working in the garden with my parents and my grandparents. Many, happy hours were spent curled up with my grandma or mom during the cold winter days looking through seed and plant catalogs, and talking about all of the delicious things we would make with the fruits and vegetables we grew. As I grew older, I would spend winter days mapping our garden with colored pencils on construction paper. I would also use great care and what artistic skill I had to make little garden markers to show us what plants lied dormant in the seeds we planted.

When I had a family of my own it was natural to do the same things with my children. When my oldest daughter was only two, she was given the important task of placing earthworms on her tiny plastic trowel and moving them to a safe area during planting. As she grew older, she helped pick out seeds, water the plants, pull weeds, harvest the crops, and prepare the meals. Our gardens are never large, just small spaces in our back yard. Over the years they changed shapes, sizes, and locations. We have grown tomatoes in pots, strawberries from a hanging basket, eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini, all types of peppers, squash, carrots, radishes, and onions in the main garden. We have grown cilantro, oregano, mint, parsley, chives, and dill in the flower beds. We even planted a peanut plant just for the fun of it! Each plant, each seed, each harvest, each meal from our garden is a chance to connect with my children and instill in them the love for fruits and vegetables and the sense of accomplishment and empowerment that comes from growing your own food.

What I have learned as an adult is that my experience with gardening is rare. Everyday I meet more and more people who do not have these experiences as part of their past. For many people, especially those who grew up in larger cities, apartments, or in poverty, vegetables are identified with cans, not gardens. I find this not only heartbreaking, but a disturbing and dangerous trend.

As the administrator of Champaign-Urbana Public Health District I find myself faced with an epidemic that is unique to our time and our culture. While Public Health has steadily increased life expectancies in the developed world through sanitation and vaccination, we now find ourselves faced with an epidemic caused not by an infectious disease but by a lifestyle. The epidemic of obesity is killing hundreds of thousands of people through diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and cancer. For the first time in history, children born now can expect to live 10-20 years less than the generation before them. Our healthcare system is overwhelmed with fighting the diseases and conditions that are caused by obesity. This epidemic is not something that can be fixed with a vaccination or a pill. This epidemic is going to require changes in the way we think about food and our future. It is going to require us all to search our souls and decide if we are comfortable with lowering the life expectancy of our children. We need to ask ourselves if it is ok to feed our children highly processed foods filled with salt, sugar and fat that are killing them.

What we need is a cultural shift away from “convenience” and back toward “sustainable”. Increasingly our lifestyles have focused on fast, more, easier, cheaper. This is not sustainable for our health, our psyche, our economy, or our planet. In central Illinois we are fortunate to live in a place that has some of the best soil in the entire world. What do we do with that resource? We cover it in grass and feed it a steady diet of herbicides, pesticides and fertilizer so we can cut it and throw the clippings into landfills. What if we decide to change that? What if we slowly start turning the soil over and planting fruits and vegetables where the grass was? What if those of us who know how to garden help those who don’t? What if we share our seeds and our plants and our tools and our time? What if we invite others to garden with us? What if we share our surplus fruits and vegetables with our friends, co-workers, neighbors and schools? What if they love the taste of the fresh food? What if we then mentor and encourage our friends, co-workers, neighbors and schools to plant their own gardens? Could it be that we could change the culture? Could it be that addressing the epidemic of obesity could start with gardens? I believe it could!

If you are reading this and it brought back any happy memories for you, I encourage you to plant something today. Start some herbs in a bowl. Plant a tomato in a flower pot. Put a pepper plant next to your tulips in your flower bed. Contact a community garden and get involved. Ask you child’s school if they have ever considered a kitchen garden to supplement the food in their lunch program. Talk to your church to see if some of their land could be used to start a teaching garden. Be bold and plow up some of your own yard and turn it into the future! Make a pledge now spread the healthful benefits that can come from putting a seed into the earth. Make sure your children can tell their children of the happy memories they made with you.

Champaign County has many resources to assist persons who are interested in growing some of their own produce. U of I Champaign County Extension is a great place to start! Local nurseries offer excellent and friendly advice on what to plant how to plant it. Our libraries have many gardening books, pamphlets, and computer access. C-U Fit Families has both a web page and a Facebook page to connect those who are interested in healthier living. We can stop this epidemic of obesity, but we all must do something. Take advantage of our beautiful weather, our fertile soil and our local expertise. Put a seed in the ground and see what change you can grow!

Julie Pryde is administrator of Champaign-Urbana Public Health District and may be reached at

1 comment:

  1. Well-said! This year I'm planning to expand the edible portions of my garden to the front yard with some decorative herbs and peppers.