SF Victory Gardens 2007+: A Conversation Between Amy Franceschini & Christina Ulke
Journal of Aesthetics & Protest
Christina: SF Victory Gardens 2008 taps into several current and historical movements of participatory urban agriculture, can you talk about your relation to the SF community garden culture?
Amy: I have no direct connection to the community garden culture in SF. My relation to agriculture stems from my parent’s farming practices. My father was an industrial farmer in the San Joaquin Valley and owned a pesticide company and my mother was an organic farmer and activist near San Luis Obispo. Although their ideologies were seriously opposed, my parent’s involvement in growing food was politicized in their own way; my father heavily involved in water politics and labor issues and my mother fighting local strawberry farmers to stop using Malathion. Through canvassing and attending public hearings I was introduced to food politics in action. My interest in urban agriculture evolved through a desire for aspects of the rural, but not being ready to be away from the urban environment. In 1995, my best friend worked for the now-defunct San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners. (1) SLUG had always been in my mind as a successful, municipal project. It had many simple frameworks for cultivating citizen action and collective ownership of neighborhood programs. For example, if ten people in a neighborhood got together and approached SLUG, they would organize a workday and build a community garden for the neighborhood. The process of rallying neighbors took advantage of an organizational network that was already established and it strengthened neighborhood relationships.
Currently the Victory Garden program has teamed up with Slow Food Nation to plant a garden in front of City Hall. The Victory Garden program runs through the Garden for the Environment and a network of volunteers. The garden at City Hall will create a community for urban gardeners. Each major urban agriculture organization will have a plot to demonstrate their growing techniques. This garden will shed light on the diversity of garden practice and groups in the city; City Slikcers, Alemany Farms, Edible Schoolyard, Garden for the Environment, and Quesada Gardens. The City sees this garden as an important symbol of their long-term commitment to urban agriculture; which includes funding, access to land and integration into public programs, schools, libraries, and parks. The city used to fund SLUG, but since SLUG collapsed, there has not been another program in place. When we went to the city to present Victory Gardens, they were extremely receptive and saw our project as a resurrection of SLUG and a promise of a program that would benefit a diverse population through education, support and employment opportunities.
Working on a greater, municipal scale seems to be a crucial component of the project. Why was it important to you to get the city involved?
My desire to work with the city was inspired by a myriad of things: time spent living in Gent Belgium over the last five years (2); the 2003 mayoral campaign in San Francisco for former President of the Board of Supervisors and Green Party member Matt Gonzalez; my general dissatisfaction with politics in this country; reading about the scale and participation of the WWI Liberty Gardens and WWII Victory Gardens.
I first became aware of the WWII Victory Garden program in Laura Lawson's City Bountiful: A History of Community Gardening in America. The program was initiated in 1941 by the Office of Civilian Defense in cooperation with the Department of Agriculture. During a national garden conference a guide for the Victory Garden Program was produced and distributed to cities across the country. Between 1941 and 1943 there were 20 million Victory Gardens and 41% of our total food was being produced in Victory Gardens.
The image of 20 million gardens being planted within 2 years gave me the fuel to imagine a new program with a focus on contemporary food issues. My intentions were set to revive not only a city-supported gardening program, but a personal revival to get politicized and radicalized about the current food crisis. Our food is controlled by profit-driven corporations like Monsanto. The current Farm Bill promotes production of food not fit for human consumption, and destructive farming practices that deplete soil and air through overuse of pesticides, Nearly 70% of farm subsidies go to the top 10% of the country’s biggest growers. This form of corporate welfare encourages the ongoing consolidation of farming and food into fewer hands. I might be naive, but I hope that food can be produced by a smaller network of familiar faces like “neighbors”.
As an idealist I believe that the government is the PEOPLE and was designed to reflect, represent, and support the needs of the PEOPLE. This country has lost touch with what that means. Imagine an amazing potluck with a huge list of ingredients and cooks. Participation is key.
Since more and more businesses and corporations control "public policy", they do have the power and autonomy to develop sustainable systems and products. The homogenizing effect of power being controlled by fewer voices has resulted in the loss of decentralized decision-making made at a local level. But despite our conservative tendencies at the national level, San Francisco has been successful in moving the progressive movement forward on many fronts.
It inspired me to think of the city as a place where progressive ideas can take root. San Francisco is ready for a decentralized and systemic approach to urban agriculture. To be honest I did not even know what that meant when I went to the city, but I knew that I had the historical precedent of the massive participation in the Victory Garden program and a simple proposition for the city. When I approached the city with the help of Matt Gonzalez, I was met with overwhelming interest and support. After one small presentation to the city with images and information about the historical program, namely the photo of the demonstration garden in front of city hall, 12 different city offices were ready to support the program in any way.
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