By George Ball
Last summer, I discovered a profound contradiction deep in the fertile soil of community gardening.
First lady Michelle Obama has boldly proclaimed that the urban poor are at serious risk of deprivation of fresh produce. "Food deserts" stretch from border to border in the poor and underprivileged sections of every major American city. One of the ways she proposed to solve this problem is to expand the size and number of community gardens.
However, there is also a stylish movement in contemporary gardening toward old-fashioned or "heirloom" vegetables that were popular in our grandparents' day. In community gardens everywhere, I see tall, rangy, low-yielding and romantically named heirloom varieties made popular by environmental activists.
But there is trouble in this garden paradise.
While the often lovely and uniquely flavored heirloom vegetables befit an upper-middle-class suburban vegetable plot, they fail to meet the urgent nutritional needs of the urban poor. In fact, old-fashioned varieties, with their poor yields, late harvests, and floppy plants, present logistical challenges that most community gardeners cannot meet.
In contrast, modern hybrids - looked down on by today's gardening elite - supply not only the requisite large quantity of vegetables that the poor need but also a nutritionally high quality of fruit, loaded with greater amounts of vitamins and minerals than their distant ancestors.
Over the past several years, plant breeders have introduced nearly a dozen new cultivars of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and lettuce that record up to twice the nutrients of ordinary vegetables. While they don't have romantic or seductive names and stories behind them, these new hybrids deliver vastly more antioxidants and Vitamins C and D.
According to their zealous advocates, heirloom vegetables have the virtue of being able to self-propagate via do-it-yourself seed-saving techniques. The argument is that self-perpetuating heirlooms provide low-income families with an inexpensive means of sustaining themselves.
However, this virtue is not what it seems. Saving seeds can be just as tricky and time-consuming as growing the vegetable garden itself. Seed must be collected, extracted, cleaned, and put into dry storage. Paradoxically, the purveyors of heirloom seeds are at the elbow of community gardeners every year with new seeds to sell them.
Therefore, the underprivileged of America are expected to spend more than twice the time and effort for less than half the benefits.
The swelling ranks of our nation's unemployed include many potential gardeners. Recent news of the challenges facing food banks across the country suggests that community gardens are coming soon to many middle-class neighborhoods. Perhaps we are not all out of work, or living in a food desert, but we should be mindful of those who are.
Although today's hybrid vegetables, loaded with delicious fruit, are not the "flavor of the week" among gardening pundits, they address the food-security needs of the urban poor more effectively than any hundred-year-old variety ever could.