I’ve written in the past about the politicization of food and the increased political activism of chefs, farmers, food shoppers, and even soup kitchens.  Well now, there’s a new tentacle to contend with: Food politics in education. 

No doubt, most have heard of the White House vegetable garden and First Lady Michelle Obama active role in it.  Forget the standard “First Lady issues”-literacy, poverty, education, drugs; Mrs. Obama has made healthy eating and garden grown food one of her priorities.  She even took gardening tips from a few school children in November as she toured a Virginia elementary school’s vegetable garden.  Nationwide, schools are being encouraged to grow gardens-where children will be taken out of the classroom for hours each week to plant, weed, and harvest vegetables. 

Now, Caitlin Flanagan takes on the school garden phenomenon in a fantastic article for the Atlantic.  Her scathing review of these programs (and the designer of the trend, Alice Waters) boils down to one basic question: Should kids really be outside weeding a garden, or inside learning how to read and write.  In today’s politically correct educational system, you can hear the defenses before you even read Flanagan’s piece–“gardening encourages an understanding of where food comes from…it teaches kids the importance of hard work….it gives children the historical perspective that grocery stores weren’t always there,” etc, etc.  Flanagan deftly addresses all of those myths and makes clear, these programs are hurting children.  

The cruel trick has been pulled on this benighted child by an agglomeration of foodies and educational reformers who are propelled by a vacuous if well-meaning ideology that is responsible for robbing an increasing number of American schoolchildren of hours they might other wise have spent reading important books or learning higher math (attaining the cultural achievements, in other words, that have lifted uncounted generations of human beings out of the desperate daily scrabble to wrest sustenance from dirt).  

But Flanagan doesn’t blame Alice Waters and her devoted army of politically connected fans for these silly school gardens; she blames the State’s educational department for pursuing these trendy educational policies:  

It’s the state’s Department of Education that is to blame for allowing these gardens to hijack the curricula of so many schools. But although garden-based curricula are advanced as a means of redressing a wide spectrum of poverty’s ills, the animating spirit behind them is impossible to separate from the haute-bourgeois predilections of the Alice Waters fan club, as best expressed in one of her most oft-repeated philosophies: “Gardens help students to learn the pleasure of physical work.” Does the immigrant farm worker dream that his child will learn to enjoy manual labor, or that his child will be freed from it? What is the goal of an education, of what we once called “book learning”? These are questions best left unasked when it comes to the gardens.

Hispanics constitute 49 percent of the students in California’s public schools. Ever since the state adopted standards-based education (each child must learn a comprehensive set of skills and material) in 1997-coincidentally, at the same moment that garden learning was taking off-a notorious achievement gap has opened between Hispanic and African American students on the one hand, and whites and Asians on the other. Indeed, Hispanic students do particularly poorly at King Middle School [a middle school in Berkley, CA where Alice Waters set up her first school garden]. According to the 2009 Federal Accountability Requirements, statewide, more than 39 percent of Latinos are proficient in English and 44 percent in math, but at the King school, those numbers are a dismal 30 percent and 29 percent, respectively. Where do Berkeley’s African American and Hispanic middle-schoolers do well? At a gardenless charter school called Cal Prep, where 92 percent of the students are black or Latino, where the focus is on academic achievement, and where test scores have been rising steadily.  

But the most important question posed by Flanagan is what are these gardens actually getting the children?  

Here is the essential question we must ask about the school gardens: What evidence do we have that participation in one of these programs-so enthusiastically supported, so uncritically championed-improves a child’s chances of doing well on the state tests that will determine his or her future (especially the all-important high-school exit exam) and passing Algebra I, which is becoming the make-or-break class for California high-school students? I have spent many hours poring over the endless research on the positive effects of garden curricula, and in all that time, I have yet to find a single study that suggests classroom gardens help students meet the state standards for English and math. Our kids are working in these gardens with the promise of a better chance at getting an education and a high-school diploma but without one bit of proof that their hard work will result in either. We should remember, by the way, that the California high-school exit exam, which so many are failing, is hardly onerous: it requires a mastery of eighth-grade math (students need to score a mere 55 percent on that portion of the test) and 10th-grade English language and composition (on which they need to score 60 percent or higher). And so I would say this to our state’s new child farm laborers: ¡Huelga! Strike!  

I agree with Flanagan! It’s time for those unpaid, underage farm workers to strike and demand an education.