Last Saturday I attended the launch of the Slow Food Nation Victory Garden at the foot of San Francisco's City Hall, on a site what was recently an ornamental lawn. The garden, which takes its name from the World War II campaign to get citizens to grow their own food to support the war effort, is intended to demonstrate the power of community and to ask us to think about how to create a more locally-focused food system.
As I approached the garden, I heard an enthusiastic voice coming over loudspeakers in Spanish, almost like a preacher caught up in the power of the spirit. According to the schedule I had received, the speeches wouldn't be starting for another hour, but I thought perhaps this was an early speaker about the "fair" part of Slow Food's mission (as in "Good, Clean and Fair"), talking about the plight of migrant farm workers.
When I reached the Civic Center Plaza, I finally saw what was making the noise: a religious group holding a lively event on the lawn to the north of the Victory Garden.
Garden of Eatin'
The design of the garden has been described in detail at the Slow Food Nation blog, so I won't go into much detail here. The garden was conceived by local artist and landscape designer John Bela and consists of about 20 circular raised beds planted with herbs, vegetables, and native plants. Some are an annulus and a circle, with an access ring between the two planting areas; others are just a circle. The beds are framed by rice straw-filled fabric sacks ("wattles") that are held together by stakes and rope. Drip irrigation lines are installed in each bed to water the plants using minimal amounts of water.
Work on the garden had been going on for a few weeks, beginning with removal of the lawn (which was carefully rolled up and given away to city residents), followed by preparing the ground, then installing the beds and irrigation. Saturday was planting day, and a team of volunteers had spent the morning planting the starts that had been grown by City Slicker Farms in Oakland. Naomi Starkman's post on the Slow Food Nation blog has more photos and a list of all of the partners that helped make it possible.
Sometime around noon, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom arrived for his photo op in the garden with Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters, Willow Rosenthal of City Slicker Farms, Bela, and Slow Food Nation Executive Director Anya Fernald. They wandered through the garden, talked with some of the volunteers, and then made their way to the stage. Once there, they each took a turn telling the audience what the garden means to them and where it leads. Some of the themes they covered included the power of community (that this garden is just a first step, and that future steps will carry food-growing into backyards and vacant lots); that good, wholesome food is a right, not a privilege; and that we need to think differently and be creative. These themes were well-received and the atmosphere in the audience almost made me feel like I was at the neighboring religious revival.
Raining on the planting parade
Others were less impressed. Steven T. Jones at the SF Bay Guardian raises the concern that this garden is a "hollow gesture toward environmental sustainability rather than the bold collective action that we actually need."
It's true that many great demonstration projects generate a photo op or two and then fade into oblivion. And so it's up to San Franciscans and Bay Area residents — as well as those who visit San Francisco for Slow Food Nation, or other reasons — to push the city government to support community gardens, have more compost giveaways, create training programs for would-be gardeners, and maybe even find a way to make this temporary victory garden a permanent one.
Amy Stewart of Garden Rant calls special attention to the SFN Victory Garden's $180,000 price tag, and writes that "UNICEF distributes this amazing, nutrient-rich nut butter called Plumpy Nut that is easy to store, distribute, and feed to starving children. It literally saves lives. For the price of that victory garden, 26,470 starving children could have been fed for a month." It's hard to argue with the starving-children trump card, and yes, Slow Food Nation could have spent the funds on Plumpy Nut or a few truckloads of vegetables for the food bank, then held some dignitary-packed press conferences to announce the donations. That would have been a noble gesture, but it wouldn't have done much to advance the goals of Slow Food.
While lots of groups are focused on saving the world's hungry kids, not so many are trying to increase the number of community gardens, improve access to healthy food in low-income communities over the long term, and inspiring people to plant food crops on city property — all of which has the potential to help under-nourished children as well. (If you think my argument is flawed and you want to make a "protest donation" to UNICEF, you can do that here.)
Nor is the SFN Victory Garden just a fleeting faux farm: via e-mail, Slow Food Nation spokesperson Naomi Starkman told me that all produce harvested from the garden will be donated to the San Francisco Food Bank, and Slow Food Nation will donate the bedding materials, soil and other garden hardware for use in Victory Gardens 2008+ backyard gardens throughout the city.
Nurturing the roots of an idea
Unlike a big donation to UNICEF, the garden will be talked about — in positive and negative terms — for a long time and in many places. It will be seen by thousands: visitors to the Main Library or Asian Art museum; workers in the city, state and federal buildings around the plaza; patrons of the S.F. opera and symphony; and, of course, almost everyone who comes to Slow Food Nation in August and September. Because of its visibility and placement, I view the Victory Garden as much more than good PR for Mayor Newsom and Alice Waters. It's a grand statement that can inspire discussions (and criticism), new thinking, activism and new collaborations on urban gardens and our food system.
Big, volunteer-powered projects like the Victory Garden have the potential to unleash a wave of human energy. I could feel this energy during the event — there's a desire to make things happen. So I thought I'd close this summary with something that Amy Franceschini (the artist who was instrumental in launching the Victory Gardens 2008+ project) said after she was introduced on-stage by garden designer Bela.
She quoted a Brazilian folk song: "If you dream alone, it's just a dream. If you dream together, it's reality."
Tickets for Slow Food Nation are now on sale, including for the Food for Thought series and the related events in the Commonwealth Club's "How We Eat" series in August. These panel discussions on the world food crisis and relocalizing food will feature some heavy hitters in the food movement, including Wendell Berry, Michael Pollan, Vandana Shiva, Eric Schlosser, Marion Nestle, Dan Barber, and Gary Nabhan.
Photo credits: Second and fourth photos from, used with permission. First and third photos by the author.