The Accidental Food Patriot

I’ve been quiet for the past months, dear readers, because a sad, sad thing happened. My beloved father – who taught me how to garden, how to be a good person and never let me get off the phone without saying how much he loved me – died in April. He fell off a roof. At 85 years old. He fell off a roof then climbed back on to finish what he was doing. Later we learned he had 18 broken ribs and undetected heart disease. So he left us for other adventures.

Recounting the awesomeness of his loving life, how he inspired so many in his extraordinary, ordinary way has made me a bit self-reflective over the past months. He wasn’t a showy “look at me” type of guy. He just did the right thing because it was the right thing. And made a point of seeing the good in everyone.

Spending time with my now widowed mother – they’d known each other for 71 years – has brought up a lot of stories and memories as we both try to make sense of this loss. I want share two of them.

Daddy used to say that when I was little I loved to put on my “gardening hat” and run up and down the rows of our large vegetable garden. It was a twice-daily ritual. He would do his garden inspection in the morning, before work, and chores after work. And I would run up and down the rows chattering to keep him company. He didn’t think I was chattering to him, for the most part, but conversations were happening.

I believe this story to be true because one of my first memories is running between two rows of greens where I was stopped short by a spider web strung across the path. I remember the color of the greens (the row to the left was beets), the color of the light (it was Fall), the dirt under my bare feet and that enormous spider in her dewy web. If I close my eyes, I’m four again and see it all like it was yesterday.

Mother tells me that when I was little, despite having plenty of toys, my favorite activity was sitting in the kitchen and moving her pots and pans around. Sometimes banging on them with a wooden spoon or pretending to stir things. And chattering.

I believe this story to be true because one of my other first memories is sitting on her kitchen island with a bowl in my lap “stirring” (making a mess is more likely). We were making chocolate chip cookies. As she bustled around the kitchen she would stop by every now and then and say “let mommy get the feel of it.” She’d then stir my mess into something resembling cookie dough, add another ingredient, tell me what a good job I was doing and proceed on.

So you can see that food, gardening and family were foundational themes in my life.

I grew up in rural Oregon in the 70’s and 80’s. For those not from that neck of the woods “rural Oregon in the 70’s and 80’s” equates to lots of hippies. Not my parents – they were older and conservative – but everyone else’s parents and, well, most everyone else in general. After leaving home, I went to college at University of Oregon in Eugene. For those not familiar with Eugene, Oregon, that also equates to lots of hippies. Except in the 80’s and 90’s many of them were professors, employers or other influencers.

With this background noise of social consciousness and activism, I always had a nagging feeling that I’d missed out on something. Hearing revolutionary stories like marches against “the war” (that means Vietnam), protests against inequality of all kinds, hanging from “The Who’s” helicopter at Woodstock (hey, even hippies need to have some fun!) The Reagan-era 80’s and 90’s seemed, well, boring. My job with an environmental publication was a nice try but I felt the revolutionary days had passed by and I’d missed out.

Meanwhile I was learning some “radical” gardening ideas from a friend who was one of the original employees at Smith & Hawken. Companion planting, permaculture astrological gardening – you name it, I tried it. While most people get their religious or political beliefs challenged in college, I got my gardening beliefs challenged. And boy did daddy and I have some heated (but friendly) discussions!

I left Oregon and landed in Chicago, accidentally, in 1994. After adjusting to the lack of hippies, I settled into this land of opportunity, started a career, married a wonderful husband, developed an extended “family” of incredible friends and proceeded to have a great life. But those early influences of food and gardening (and hippies) haunted me. It all came to a head after seven years in a condo and me whining about no gardening space… my wise (or maybe annoyed) husband woke up one February and said, “Should we buy a house? Wait. Should we buy a yard?” And we did. We bought a “yard with a house attached to it” and we put in our garden the very next summer. And that’s how I started blogging about The Yarden.

As if having my own garden paradise wasn’t enough, I’d developed this condition I call “lot lust” where I see empty space and want to put in a garden. This is what happened with the empty lot on Peterson Ave. that became the first Peterson Garden Project garden. Inspired by a photo in a local butcher shop showing the space as a Victory Garden in WW2, my love of food gardening and a big dose my parents’ Greatest Generation “if you don’t like something change it” ethos, I took the first steps to revive the Victory Garden tradition on that piece of land and teach people to grow their own food. Quickly, an army of like-minded souls joined in and we had the largest edible, organic garden in the city in one short season.

One of the first volunteers to the project, Alexandra Nelson, wrote this one rainy day as we sat, in awe, discussing how people were so eager to grow their own food together. (And, Alexandra is, in all fairness, an old hippie.)

And I had a little ah ha moment. Maybe the revolutionary days hadn’t passed after all… maybe they were beginning with a new spin?

Shortly after that, Jeff and Jennifer Spitz of Groundswell Films approached me about featuring Peterson Garden Project in their movie Food Patriots. After about 13 seconds of conversation we realized we were kindred spirits. And their journey, as parents, to understand a food system that almost killed their son really touched a nerve…

Almost three years later, they’ve crafted an amazing story about how individuals, like you and me, are making a difference in our food system in small and large ways. And how this revolution is growing, day-by-day.

And, four years later, the Peterson Garden Project has become an award winning education program encompassing 3,000 gardeners and volunteers, nine gardens, a learning center, a full-blown garden curriculum and an upcoming book called “Fearless Food Gardening in Chicagoland” for those would-be gardeners who have an inkling they might want to grow their own food, too.

There’s an old Greek proverb that reminds me of my father, and all parents, really:

“A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”

When my parents were young they were called the Greatest Generation for the ordinary work they did, en masse, to win a war. We live with the blessings, and challenges, of their effort every day. And today, we have the chance to win a war, too. We may not see the consequences today, or tomorrow, of making different food choices, or teaching others to grow their own food. But we have the opportunity three times a day to take part in today’s food revolution with every bite we consume and every dollar we spend. And the consequences of our actions – just like the Greatest Generation’s efforts and just like my own dear father’s loving parenting – will live on in unexpected and important ways long after we are all just a string of cherished memories.


LaManda JoyThe Accidental Food Patriot

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