Cultivating, Cross-Culturally

By Eve Pranis

"Our city of San Antonio is a culturally diverse melting pot," reports Master Gardener Vernon Mullens. "Since foods can be a window on cultural understanding and appreciation, we're attempting to open that window with an after-school kid's garden that features foods of ethnic groups from around the world that live in our city." Vernon reports that they've borrowed the African word Sankofa, which means "Go back and fetch it," since participants will "go back and fetch" information and explore and discover through plants something of the cultures that make up their community.

Through the Department of Parks and Recreation, Vernon's partners -- Master Gardeners and other volunteers -- solicit student participants through the YMCA and Boys and Girls Clubs. During the school year adult volunteers visit classrooms and begin to introduce some of the crops that students will grow in summer gardens. "As an early kickoff for Black History month," reports Vernon, "we learned about George Washington Carver, made peanut butter, and explored peanuts in preparation for growing them this summer."

The mostly at-risk youngsters take turns in small groups tending eight different "ethnic" gardens including, for instance, an Asian garden featuring soybeans, Chinese cabbage, Chinese greens, lettuce, radishes, cucumbers, cowpeas, spinach, ginger, and eggplant; and a Central American garden sporting corn, winter squash, potatoes, chili peppers, pumpkin, beans -- even sugarcane.

In addition to learning to raise, care for, and harvest a garden, students research the origins and histories of the foods they're growing, locate on maps where crops originated and where they're used today, and learn about their nutritional value. "The kids particularly enjoy asking parents and seniors how they've used different crops, trying new foods, and bringing new ethnic recipes home," Vernon notes. "During the summer, the local library offers a cross-cultural reading program to enhance the gardening project."

Afro-American Garden

"Because of our large African American community, much of our effort is directed at the African American agricultural experience," explains Vernon. "Many of our children lack knowledge of the significant contributions of Afro-Americans to American agriculture. This garden allows children to explore and discover some of the riches of the Afro-American culture and heritage."

Crops in the this garden include collards, mustard and turnip greens, broadbeans, ginger, hot peppers, peanuts, watermelon, okra, sweet potatoes, and basil. They represent crops brought from Africa and those that Afro-Americans cultivated and used that were native to this country. Through foods and agricultural experiences, students explore the roots of Africans in America and "meet" African Americans who made important agricultural contributions. "Using the recipes we've collected from seniors and parents," adds Vernon, "we plan to publish a garden-based Afro-American recipe book."

"Through all of these garden projects," he notes, "we've tried to expand cultural awareness and appreciation -- both of the youngsters' own cultures and those of others. In addition to studying and growing crops from other areas, we do a lot of role playing as we learn some words and customs, and try dishes of other cultures. As they work in the garden with a common goal, these ethnically diverse groups of kids have begun to respect each other and to appreciate the cultural richness of the community."

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