It isn’t often that I read about a program combining education, health reform, national security, civic duty… and gardening. However, my historical research often leads me to obscure, forgotten information and today was no exception.
I began my reading with an item from the 1918 newspaper about President Wilson’s proclamation designating October 12 as “Liberty Day”. And while that is another topic worthy of discussion, it was a Google books reference to “School Life” that really caught and held my interest. School Life was the official publication of the Bureau of Education, Department of the Interior. The August 1918 issue expounds on the phenomenal success of the USSGA.
“The United States School Garden Army was organized in March of 1918, growing out of the school and home garden work which had been inaugurated by the Bureau of Education in 1914.
President Wilson set aside $50,000 from his national security and defense appropriation to promote the work for the first six months. He has since appropriated $200,000 more to carry the work through another 10 months. Those responsible for initiating the organization were P. P. Claxton, United States Commissioner of Education ; Franklin K. Lane, Secretary of the Interior; and President Wilson.
Purposes. Two main purposes prompted the planning of the United States School Garden Army: (a) Increased food production and (b) training of school children in thrift, industry, service, patriotism, and responsibility. The necessity for man power was being felt. This was especially true in agricultural pursuits. Not alone were the drafted young men going from the farm, but great numbers of farm employees were being attracted to the cities by higher wages offered in other industries. If the millions of city boys and girls could be induced to give their leisure time to cultivating the thousands of acres of untilled land in front and back yards and vacant lots of our cities, towns, and villages, it would result in a substantial increase in food production and an improvement in the quality of our coming citizenship. The Bureau of Education undertook to accomplish this through the organization of the United States School Garden Army. It is a problem both of production and education, and belongs to the schools.”
President Wilson wrote that “Gardening is just as real and patriotic an effort as the building of ships or the firing of cannon.” By Armistice Day, several million children had answered the nation's call to service, enlisting as "Soldiers of the Soil."
The USSGA was one of the first attempts to create a national curriculum in the United States and was a forerunner of many other groups such as 4H and extension organizations. It was a great example of a school-based program strongly linked to home, family, and patriotism. And apparently it was embraced by parents in Oklahoma. This report from July 1919 says: “In Oklahoma almost every other house is displaying its garden flag, and the boys and girls are proudly cultivating their USSG Army gardens in the back yards. Oklahoma reports approximately 150,000 gardeners, with 188 cities actively engaged in school supervised home garden work.”
Sometimes we have to take a closer look at our past in order to move forward toward a better future. As we struggle today with health issues, environmental changes, and economic challenges, what better educational foundation could we provide for our children than to teach them to grow their own food? The school garden, the home garden, the community garden…all seem like viable alternatives to a lifestyle of junk food and drive-thru windows. This basic agricultural curriculum incorporates nutrition, conservation, and environmental sustainability. If taught properly it would include reading, science, math, and health. It requires physical as well as mental skills. It supports family values and cooperation. It encourages civic responsibility and community involvement. I’m sure there are negative aspects to this plan, and there must be reasons why every school in America doesn’t currently have a garden, but I certainly think “a garden for every child, a child in every garden” deserves consideration as a motto for 2016.