Victory Garden Connects the Dots

August 1, 2008’s 11 am on a weekday morning and Bill Mohler is manning the Slow Food Nation Victory Garden. The volunteer spends several mornings a week here, as a kind of tour guide for visitors and curious passers-by who wander in and take snapshots of everything from squash vines to mustard greens in the raised, round garden beds. The seniors who exercise on the nearby lawn have already made their daily rounds through the garden, commenting on the vegetables’ progress. Regulars and first-timers alike have plenty of advice to offer.

“Everyone has an opinion about the tomatoes,” Mohler says, as he recounts what he’s heard from locals. Some say stop watering them, others say don’t bother growing them at all here in the cool summer weather of the San Francisco Civic Center. Many are surprised to see the green fruit starting to swell.

Either way, the garden has people talking―even those who wouldn’t normally spend much time discussing the source of their food. According to Blair Randall, of Garden of the Environment, one of the project’s essential goals is to create “a platform upon which to have a conversation about local urban agriculture,” starting with the most local food possible and moving outward.

 cityhallGarden for the Environment runs the Victory Gardens 2008+ program, a pilot project funded by the City of San Francisco to support the transition of yards, window boxes, rooftops, and unused land into organic food production areas. Garden for the Environment played a significant role in the collaborative efforts to plan and execute the garden, which was built by 150 volunteers during the first 10 days of July and was planned to coincide with Slow Food Nation, a gathering to unite the growing sustainable food movement.

In addition to starting conversations and inspiring potential backyard food-growers, the most high-profile urban garden in San Francisco’s recent history will also generate an estimated 1300 pounds of food this summer. As many as 75 heirloom vegetable varieties belonging to Slow Food’s Ark of Taste list will be donated to the San Francisco Food Bank.

Bill Mohler has already dropped off several bags of greens at the food bank. “We’re not talking tons of produce, but we know where it grew and how, which feels really good to me,” he says.

According to Randall, the USDA estimates that the average person eats around 2 pounds of fruit and vegetables a day. There’s nowhere near enough space to grow that much food in the city, so he believes it’s crucial that the lessons learned in urban gardens have an impact on people’s broader appreciation of local and sustainably-produced food.

“When you start growing some of your own food, you gain so much more respect for how difficult it is to grow on a large scale,” Randall says.

Mohler has experienced this expanded awareness firsthand. “I’ve always appreciated farmer’s markets and I love getting the food to my table, but I had no idea what it took to get it to that market,” he says.

Change on the kind of scale Randall and the others behind the Victory Garden are planning never happens quickly, but the foundation is crucial. “People have asked, ‘Is it a token garden?’,” says Randall. “It’s no more a token than the first match it takes to light a fire.”

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