In my last post, I had just set up camp in La Plant, South Dakota and, here, the growing season was far from starting. It was cold, rainy and the cement-like soil didn't make conditions easy to plant a garden. I didn't think much growing was going to happen. Now, the garden is drool-worthy, really! And, you don't need to be a gardener or farmer to appreciate the transformation. The 72'-long tunnel is up and secured and has tomatoes, peppers and seedlings growing inside. There's a massive billboard to publicize garden efforts and also serves as a windbreak. The potatoes are growing like weeds, along with the beans, beets and sunflowers. And, perhaps the most exciting thing: People are showing up to participate.
In a recent op-ed, New York Times columnist Mark Bittman wrote about the term "foodie." It's a cringe-worthy term because it lumps people who appreciate and support good food into one category and, for me, the word denotes elitism, over-indulgence and exacerbates issues of race, class and socioeconomics. The food movement needs enthusiasts of all kinds, but the word "foodie" seems to set up a division between the haves and have-nots. But, to be a true food lover, the mission should go beyond pleasure-seeking and extend to food system reform. As Bittman suggests,
On a grand scale, we need societal changes and government support to make this more accessible to everyone. But — and this is the part I like best — making good food fair and affordable cannot be achieved without affecting the whole system. These are not just food questions; they are questions of justice and equality and rights, of enhancing rather than restricting democracy, of making a more rational, legitimate economy. In other words, working to make food fair and affordable is an opportunity for this country to live up to its founding principles.
Here on the Cheyenne River Reservation, the food and garden projects are all about access to clean, safe and nutrient-dense foods. It's about alleviating that politically correct hunger euphemism, or food insecurity. As I've mentioned in discussions on the garden with volunteer groups, there's very little people in La Plant and on the Reservation have control over, but food can be an exception. When the Lakota and other Plains Indians were displaced from their land, they became dependent on government rations; today, many communities still depend and rely on federal food assistance. The destructive history and pattern of land acquisition are still raw and alive. The revival of a good, just food movement matters here because land and subsistence patterns are so intrinsically tied to Lakota culture, what it means to be Lakota and the survival of invaluable knowledge, traditions and the commons.
It would be overly optimistic to imply that the small but mighty and impressive food projects in La Plant can absorb all past and present societal, cultural, economic ills. But, the act of growing food is an incredibly satisfying process because change is tangible and visible. For me, this includes the desire of one woman who wants to learn how to sow seeds and then shows up to our first gardening class. Or, an inquiry by a young, unemployed father who wants to provide for his family and thinks growing food in the garden can help. Or, receiving a beautiful bundle of wild turnips from one man and his granddaughter.
In my very short time here in La Plant, people are using the garden to communicate and cultivate personal and communal responsibility. Sure, from my critical grower perspective, there's a lot of work that that still needs to happen: figuring out a better irrigation system, wishing that I could have started plants earlier, second-guessing my growing plans. But, these concerns seem to dissolve when kids want to water plants in the garden, when they ask questions and when they want to spend time in the garden even after the camp projects are completed for the day. After a recent rainstorm, I can (somewhat) overlook the latest batch of "gumbo" muck stuck to my boots because of these heart-swelling moments. The term "growing change" seems as terrible, icky and contrived as "foodie," but personal and community growth through food is exactly what's happening in the garden in La Plant.