When this post first appeared in April of this year, the garden you see above was a weedy, nasty urban lot. Within six weeks hundreds of neighbors, volunteers and friends had transformed it into the largest community edible garden in Chicago. The post below talks about the amazing achievements of Chicagoans in 1943. The Peterson Garden Project garden at Peterson and Campbell in Chicago’s 40th ward has shown all of us that we have the capacity and passion to do the same – to be a new greatest, greenest generation.
One day some of our core volunteer team were in the garden teaching urbanites how to sow seeds – some had never touched a seed before – when the enormity of what people are able to do when we band together hit us. Uber volunteer, Xan, quickly penned this marker-as-memo which has become our mantra…
There are many definitions of revolution… one is “a sudden, complete or marked change in something” – this garden has done that for many of us. Another, more literal definition is “a single turn” and this garden is a single turn in a greater change that is happening in Chicago and the country.
We don’t know how – or if – our garden or The Peterson Garden Project’s continued efforts to impact edible gardening in Chicago will play out in an historical context. The future remains to be written. But, in the meantime, we can look back at our Victory Gardening predecessors and marvel how they created a sudden and marked change in their worlds and use that influence to change our own.
Chicago Victory Gardens 101
The year – 1943 – was a banner growing season for Chicago Victory Gardens. As the war was in its second year, Chicagoans rallied community-by-community to do all they could for the effort and to alleviate the shortages caused by the largest international conflict of all time.
As transportation resources were diverted to moving troops and munitions, shipping fresh produce to market fell low on the priority list. In addition, the glut of low-wage workers from the Great Depression were finding jobs in military-related industries so farms were short-staffed and unable to meet the food demands of the nation. To complicate matters, materials previously used for canning food were now needed for weapons.
Simply put: there was not a lot of food available to buy.
In response to this crisis, massive coordinated efforts across Chicago – by hundreds of thousands of average citizens – created four gardening seasons (1942-1945) the likes of which have not been seen since…
Here’s some of the surprising facts of the “army of gardeners” in 1943 who fed Chicago, kept up morale and did their part for Victory:
- 90% of the people who grew Victory Gardens had never gardened before
- 14,000 plots were gardened by children on Chicago Park District land
- The largest Victory Garden in the country was in Chicago’s North Park neighborhood
- 800 families farmed this gigantic garden
- Victory Gardens produced 55,000 pounds of food during the summer of 1943
- Chicago-based companies such as Marshall Fields and International Harvester donated seeds and garden equipment
- A city ordinance prevented theft from Victory Gardens with fines of $600-$2,400 in today’s currency
- An estimated 172,000 Victory Gardens sprang up in Chicago in 1943
- 908 acres of which were on private/city lots or park property
- Communities held dozens of “harvest festivals” in the fall of 1943 including a city-wide festival at Soldier Field attended by thousands of Chicagoans
Fast forward to 2010… while not embroiled in the largest international conflict of all time, we do face food-related concerns and a new trend toward growing one’s own food is again sweeping the country:
- In 2009, stories about food safety were the #1 topic in food-related media
- Sales for home canning supplies have increased 30%
- Almost 8 million people started gardening in 2009 for the express purpose of growing their own food
It is important to remember that today’s challenges aren’t that different from those almost 70 years ago – our food supply is in jeopardy. It doesn’t matter the cause – we are feeling similar concerns. And, like those Chicagoans who had never gardened before, we can raise our own food on our backyards and neighborhood plots.
Chicago’s Victory Garden efforts were so coordinated and successful that our plan was sent out by the US Government to other major urban areas as a blueprint for success.
Perhaps, once again, we can rally and provide an example for our country in urban food production… who’s in?