Mountain View College is making great inroads in the sustainability and slow foods movement in an area known for fast food joints. (Photo courtesy Mountain View College)
There was a time in 1980s San Francisco, when a reporter could let an apartment from a woman out in the Sunset District and be surprised that there was a garden out back, a patch of land sprouting carrots, lettuce, beets, and luscious tomatoes.
Today, gardens are everywhere seemingly, even as water shortages, zero lots and high-density housing curtail gardening plans. Communities are filling in the gaps, though, and shared gardens are blossoming.
Whether one talks to a university garden manager in Dallas, an urban gardener in New Haven, or a 79-year-old community garden coordinator in New Hampshire, one thing’s clear: the shared garden movement has grown beyond just ‘tree-huggers’ and into the community at large. Kitchen gardens preceded the modern supermarket, and now we’re turning back the clock to reap greater health benefits and social nourishment.
Several months ago the US Postal Service released a five-stamp series honoring trailblazing chefs; the beatified included James Beard, Julia Child, Joyce Chen, Edna Lewis, and Felipe Rojas-Lombardi. Alas, this comes too late in our history to provide what would have been a literally delicious irony—since stamps are now self-adhesive, we no longer need to lick them, and thus have lost the chance to taste the gustatory giants themselves (not to mention the critical appraisals that might have followed: “Edna Lewis leaves a sheen of mint on the tongue”).
What the new series does provide, however, is an opportunity to consider the phenomenon of celebrity chefs itself. As a signifier of national fame, the postal service is more the last lap than the initial nod; by the time your mug makes it to a stamp, you’ve already dyed yourself pretty deeply into the cultural fabric. So the fact that these five icons are now smiling out at us from the covers of our electric bills is a pretty clear indication that they’re already comfortably—and permanently—settled in our national pantheon.
Which raises the question: how do chefs, of all people, manage that? It’s an easy call when it comes to athletes, actors, musicians, and fashion designers; their work is accessible not only by multitudes, but pretty much in perpetuity. Miles Davis might play a club date in 1957 to 30 people, but you can still hear it today on Spotify. Similarly, your coffee mug may well have Andy Warhol’s Marilyn on it. Thanks to technology, the visual, literary, and performing arts aren’t bound by considerations of immediacy and impermanence.
Sam Polk (center), founder of Groceryships, left a lucrative trading career on Wall Street to launch a nonprofit that helps families eat better.
(Banner photo by Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times; reprinted with permission)
In the last few years public figures and reporters have publicized attempts to eat decently on the amount of money received from a typical SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) allotment, which is about $4.30 per day. The stories vary widely in terms of lessons learned, strategies developed and unexpected hardships endured. Still, thriving or even surviving on food stamps is not a game to the nearly 46 million who depend on SNAP for their daily meals.
Sam Polk didn’t go this route. Instead the former Wall Street hedge fund trader entered the daunting world of public nutrition with a whole new premise — supplement the food budget with both cash and education. His two-year-old nonprofit, Groceryships, provides weekly $40 gift cards at Food 4 Less to struggling parents (mostly moms) for six months. Accompanying the cash are regular classes teaching nutrition, cooking and general healthy living concepts that are realistic and attainable to families who struggle to make ends meet.
The first group gathered in South L.A. every Wednesday night for six months. It was hard going at first–everyone felt awkward and a little suspicious about it all (free gift cards? what’s the catch?)–but by the third meeting as participant Helen Langley put it, “I took a breath and opened up. I don’t have a safe place … we made this a safe place.” At an emotional graduation, the women agreed that improving their families’ diets was a triumph beyond measure, attributable as much to the social connections formed as it was to the extra money.