What makes a Slow Food garden different from any other? The question was explored at Salone del Gusto today with the conference “What Makes a Slow Food Garden?” which compared examples from Slow Food garden programs across the globe. Despite their different contexts – from metropolitan Istanbul to rural Kenya – one salient trait linked them: The gardens are just the beginning, their benefits and significance reach far beyond the plot.
“We started the project because agriculture wasn’t taught at elementary schools, so we wanted to design a project to help young people get closer to nature,” said John Kariuki, coordinator of Slow Food’s 10,000 Gardens in Africa project in Kenya. He spoke about the difficult local circumstances. “In Kenya there is still famine and hunger, multinational corporations are imposing genetically modified crops and fertilizers, we are losing traditional products, and we face land grabbing…Young people are moving to the cities, and are no longer interested in traditional foods.”
“The project is not just the garden; its objectives are many,” he said, “We want the gardens to be classrooms without walls.” The 200-some gardens already established in Kenya employ 20 full time people. They offer generation exchange, engaging the older generations of the community. They feed families first, before selling the surplus on the local market. And they engage young people, with the goal of teaching them that agriculture can shape their future. “On one hand they are gardens,” he said, “But on the other they nurture a network that helps us to face the challenges of the African continent.”
Andy Nowak, director of Slow Food USA’s National School Gardens Program, spoke about the network of gardens as a tool for a holistic food education. Children participating in the program take an active role in planting, growing, harvesting, selling produce at the farmers’ market, transforming it into meals in school cafeterias, and donating it to underprivileged families in the community. “Giving kids rich, hands-on experiences with food increases their food literacy.”
From Turkey, the Faruk Ali Taptik recounted the Slow Food’s network’s fight to preserve centuries-old vegetables in Istanbul, a battle which sought to save not just plots, but an integral part of the city’s history and heritage.
Schoolteacher Tatyana Krasulina from Belarus described a situation where school children in inner cities live a “virtual” contact with nature which has replaced a real one. Through the school’s garden, the children are reconnecting with nature, while providing something with tangible use: the gardens include fruits and vegetables used in the school cafeteria, as well a ‘pharmaceutical’ plot where they grow medicinal plants. It is also used as a tool for protecting the local biodiversity: 23 local varieties of apples are grown here, dried or processed into juices.
In an inspiring example from an indigenous community in Meghalaya, India, school gardens are filling the gap left by the government school lunch program which doesn’t include fresh vegetables. “The children have made an attempt to reconnect to the land through school gardens, and connect themselves to local flavors,” said Janak Preet Singh who works with the project which has already reached out to 40 schools with more 3,500 children, the “custodians of the future”.
“School gardens are classrooms that can simplify maths and science; they are platforms where Ark of Taste products can be promoted. A school garden has so many roles to play that I call it an ‘empowering garden’ because serves as a medium of growth for indigenous children in the modern world. It helps them grow with identity.”