School gardens have come a long way but have a bright future. Despite losing the heights of their prominence in American education, school gardens still have an essential role in the future of education and the development of young minds. Allowing kids to interact with plants as they grow from seeds to mature adults has many benefits for their education and long-term health. America continues to struggle with an obesity epidemic. Roughly two out of every three Americans are overweight or obese. Part of this is due to a lack of experience with fresh produce. We’re doing a severe disservice to the next generation if something doesn’t change.
According to Harvard University, if trends continue, roughly half of the American population will be obese by 2030. This is a cataclysmic disaster for public health. It may be inevitable if we don’t help our children interact with food differently. We need modern-day agricultural education for the next generation to understand the importance of nutritious produce.
Before discussing how hydroponic farming may change the practice as it evolves for the 21st century, let’s get some background on the history of American school gardens.
The History of School Gardens
School gardens have a long history in the United States. The school garden has experienced many transformations since its humble beginnings. The first school garden was established in Roxbury, Massachusetts. Around 1890, schoolchildren began to grew vegetables and wildflowers outside of their schoolhouse.
School gardens became popular during the Progressive Era, as written materials flooded the market, introducing a new generation to the joys of maintaining a school garden. Education officials saw the benefit of reintroducing urban kids to their agricultural past through a school garden. Children were taught to care for flowers, fruits and vegetables. Educators hoped the garden would instill in the children a love for outdoor work, and give them a deeper knowledge of how plants grew and developed.
A founder of a children’s school farm in DeWitt Clinton Park in New York City said that she started a garden to “show how willing and anxious children are to work, and to teach them in their work some necessary civic virtues… by opening to their minds the little we know of her mysteries, more wonderful than any fairy tale.”
During this period, school gardens were more than the act of growing produce. They were seen as a way to develop children’s character to avoid the perceived vices of urban Gilded Age America: drunkenness, sloth and gambling. Between 1860 and 1900, nonagricultural employment rose 300 percent, sparking fears that America might lose its agricultural roots. However, a significant event on the horizon would return Americans to the fields again.
World War I and Victory Gardens
During the first World War, American society shifted focus toward full support of the war effort. Farmers traded plowshares for rifles as they enlisted in the military, leaving many farms without anyone to look after them. With munitions factories offering higher wages than workers could earn on farms, the nation quickly found itself in the beginning stage of a food crisis. As president Woodrow Wilson declared, “Food will win the war.”
Charles Lathrop Pack, one of the wealthiest men in America at the start of the war, became concerned that the war might not be won if the emergency was not addressed immediately. Pack’s solution differed from other prominent voices of his day. He thought that if the United States wanted to win the war, the home front must be strengthened before the frontline of battle. He helped raise support for the Victory Garden movement as Americans across the country began growing crops in their homes and public parks.
War Vegetable Gardening
Instead of bringing workers from urban areas to the countryside, the farms would head to the cities. Pack organized the National War Garden Commission as a means for America to feed all Allied countries. The situation was dire. The conflict had already devastated thousands of acres of croplands in France, Belgium, and Russia.
Americans took up gardening as a matter of civic pride, hoping to do their part in winning the “war to end all wars.” The National War Garden Commission ensured that every school in the country was made aware of the urgent need by distributing its book “War Vegetable Gardening,” which introduced millions of American children to school gardens.
Backyard Gardening Grows
School gardens were only a part of the operation, intended to spark inspiration and inspire similar actions at home. Children who might have never touched a vegetable before were now happily growing them in their backyards, church grounds, city parks and playgrounds.
In 1919, following the war’s conclusion, the commission urged a continuation of the Victory Gardens. The gardens had greatly assisted the war effort. Efforts continued into the Great Depression and World War II, as rationing went into effect to once again conserve resources for fighting forces at the front.
The government encouraged Americans to maintain Victory Gardens to supplement their rations. This helped free up produce for export to the frontlines. By May 1943, the United States had 18 million Victory Gardens. Tragically, after the war, continued assistance and support for Victory Gardens lost favor on a national scale.
The Rise of Hydroponic School Gardens
The field of hydroponics has been around for a while. Its recent growth offers hope for a continuation of the tradition of school gardens. This cropping system is different from traditional agricultural methods. Hydroponics grows produce in soil-less conditions with the help of a nutrient solution.
Plants grow quicker in hydroponic systems than in soil and taste as flavorful. With indoor production, hydroponic systems can help reduce dependence on pesticides and other pest-deterrence methods. This also makes them safer learning spaces for kids.
The Future of School Gardens
Just as school gardens helped American children develop strong character and responsible habits in the past, hydroponic school gardens can help lead America back to our growing roots in the 21st century. There are plenty of activities that students can partake in with a hydroponic school garden. Many activities put an emphasis on STEM skills that will be critically valuable in students’ professional careers.
The lessons of the past are clear. If we want the next generation to be health-conscious stewards of the planet, there’s no better way to learn about fruits and vegetables than with hands-on experience.
Charles Pack had the “Victory Garden,” but the need for locally grown, nutritious food didn’t vanish during peacetime. Today, we can take many lessons from school gardens of the past. Building a sustainable food system where more people directly produce the crops they eat strengthens local communities. Container farms have many benefits over traditional operations, including complete climate control and no weeds, pests, or other unwanted guests!
Interested in learning more about hydroponic growing systems? Contact us to learn how we can help your school find the right hydroponic system for your school garden.