Caitlin Flanagan’s Atlantic article, “Cultivating Failure: How School Gardens Are Cheating Our Most Vulnerable Students,” has been getting a lot of buzz—most of it, predictably, negative—in food circles recently. The argument that a focus on gardening and real food detracts from schools’ mission of teaching, made by the mother of school-age children, is easy to dismiss as a too-predictable cry to stop this mucking about in the dirt and for the love of God get my kids into Stanford! But taken seriously, we should ask: What claim do school gardening and food programs have on the time of school-age kids?
That question gets to the purpose of school, which Flanagan asserts is education, period. But on that basis we should also eliminate band, art, physical education, and athletics (the latter is not as far-fetched as it sounds: Robert Maynard Hutchins abolished the athletic program at the University of Chicago, at the time a Big 10 powerhouse, because he deemed it inconsistent with academic achievement). If that’s what we want from primary school, so be it. But my sense is that it isn’t.
Schools are about education, to be sure; but they’re also about cultivating children—about encouraging the development of many different facets of their development during their growing years. Does food education belong to this curriculum? There’s a good case to be made that it does. With obesity at epidemic proportions, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that re-learning how to eat is a priority for us as a society. The current recession has highlighted the fact that the knowledge of how to grow and cook one’s own food could benefit many, both financially and nutritionally.
A final argument is that, in all likelihood, school garden programs actually do no harm, academically speaking. Flanagan tacitly admits as much herself, when she writes,
I have spent many hours poring over the endless research on the positive effects of garden curricula, and in all that time, I have yet to find a single study that suggests classroom gardens help students meet the state standards for English and math.
Surely, however, if she’d found any evidence in all of her research that suggested that classroom gardens hurt student performance, we’d have known about it. But no such research is on offer: Flanagan merely claims that gardening doesn’t actually improve English and math scores. She actually offers no evidence at all in support of her central thesis, which is that school gardens are cheating students of other educational opportunities.