by Marnie Record, workforce specialist, Lincoln Land Community College
Throughout history, times of economic hardship, restricted access to resources, or simply straying too far from ancestral knowledge and practices have spurred the search for a new and better civilization based on community, healthy food and a greater connection with nature. The back to the land concept arose at the turn of the 20th century as a result of the work by lawyer, author and activist Bolton Hall who founded the Vacant Lot Gardening Association in New York City and wrote many books on the subject.
World War I brought food self-sufficiency to cities from rural areas in the name of victory gardens. Support for the home garden effort came from the United States School Garden Army, launched through the Bureau of Education, with campaign posters encouraging individuals to “Sow the seeds of victory!” and to “Plant and raise your own vegetables.” Government publications such as “War Gardening and Home Storage of Vegetables” instructed homeowners not only on how to grow gardens, but how to preserve their garden’s bounty using root cellars, ensuring a food supply during winter months.
The idea of victory gardens returned during World War II as civilians were urged to fight food shortages by growing vegetables on any available piece of land, both private and public. Vacant lots, apartment rooftops, schools and city parks teemed with vegetable production. At its peak, the U.S. housed 20 million victory gardens which produced 40 percent of the vegetables consumed in the country.
Between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s a back to the land movement saw the migration of populations from cities to rural areas. Some missed the connection with the land they once experienced as children while living adulthood in urban centers away from nature and working the soil. Others believed the capitalist system was failing and going back to the land was a necessity for surviving.
A common thread of tension exists throughout human history between city and rural life, and between connection to place and convenience. The back to the land movements of the past have been led by the fringe of society or government initiatives in times of need. In this new age of reconnection which catapulted to prominence in 2008, we are seeing a decentralized, grassroots crusade from a diverse group of people across society. The issues of food and health affect everyone more deeply and more frequently. Widespread influence flows through national organizations like Food not Lawns, Slow Food, and Kitchen Gardens International with leaders such as Alice Waters, Wendell Berry and Michael Pollen realizing an overarching dissatisfaction with the predominately corporate food system and the unintended consequences of the systems.
Looking at the individuals and organizations representing Grow Springfield, a network of community gardens and urban agriculture, you will find city, state, non-profit, primary and secondary education institutions, non-affiliated citizens and private business. All have come together with a vision for a better way of living that takes care of the people and the land.
Drew Thomas, a Springfield resident and avid DIYer when it comes to all things food-related, exemplifies how this modern movement goes beyond gardening to reclaiming connection. He owns a cider press, but not a farm or an apple tree. Without land access, he is doing all he can preserve food traditions and maintain connectedness. Thomas says, “Cooking my own meals and preserving my own food offers a link to the past and a tether to the future. When making homemade broth, I pour it into jars that came off a farm in Kentucky where part of my wife’s family is from. The farm’s long gone, and so is anyone who worked it, but those Mason jars soldier on. Using the same items that provide sustenance for my wife’s forebears lets me feel like I know them in some fashion. We listen to the same whistle of a pressure canner, pour food from the same jars. But it’s not just a link from the present to the past, cooking and canning are one way I build memories with my family.”
Lindsay Record, executive director of the Illinois Stewardship Alliance, passionately summarized current ideologies by saying that, “Even during challenging times more people want a relationship with their food and community, and they want to take an active role in creating food stories. The days of the passive consumer are passing by. People want a sensory experience where they touch the carrot as it comes out of the soil or drink the cider knowing how it’s been pressed without preservatives.”
Record receives regular comments of appreciation by members of the ISA organization who remember when people were connected to food. Many of us know a grandfather who once raised the family’s chickens, a mom who canned summer beans with her grandmother, or a local diner passing on recipes many generations deep. These people remind us that our ancestral knowledge and ways of living are not lost, and gives us hope for the future.
Lincoln Land Community College, along with an extensive group of community organizations, is hosting the first-ever Homegrown Fest and 13th annual Composting Symposium on Saturday, March 19. The events will showcase best practices in food and farming with a modern twist using current technologies. Homegrown Fest features mini-workshops on variety of topics including gardening, urban agriculture, homesteading, cooking and more, while the Composting Symposium brings together businesses, educators, and the community for hands-on practical learning to get started or more effectively using compost.
Lincoln Land Community College offers credit programs in Value-Added Local Food, Culinary Arts, Hospitality Management, and Baking/Pastry, and non-credit cooking and food classes through our Community Learning Culinary Institute. For more information, visit our website at www.llcc.edu.