My dad worked as a foreman for a cement company. Like many construction workers in the Midwest, he was routinely laid off during the winter months and put back to work when weather permitted. Money was tight; but my brother and I didn’t know it at the time. Our cozy home was filled with love and we enjoyed simple pleasures like backyard wiffle ball, driveway basketball, and swinging on our front porch swing. My parents had a wide network of high school friends that could be called on to help paint our house or re-shingle our roof for a couple of cases of beer. I grew up thinking that everyone’s house projects turned into big parties that culminated with fireworks.
During a particularly lean year, my parents borrowed a plot of dirt on a friend’s pig farm and planted a garden. The vegetables that we grew would be used for canning to get us through winter until my dad went back to work.
Shielded from worry, canning seemed to me like a creative way to spend a few days in the kitchen, rather than a parent’s act of desperation. My mom and I experimented with pickles and jams and attempted to make ketchup which turned out to be a sugary sludge that made us appreciate the special talents of those at Heinz.
We had always been resourceful and found fun in scouring fence lines for berry bushes and hunting asparagus and rhubarb along the train tracks on the outskirts of town. We supplemented our protein with venison meat that my dad “acquired” during hunting season. The garden and it’s bounty of vegetables was another way of making sure we had enough on our table during lean times.
My mom and dad would probably say that we were no different than any other working family in our small town where seasonal jobs and layoffs are commonplace. However, I remember being sent on my bike to pick up surplus government cheese at the elementary school and finding myself amongst the parents of schoolmates who always had pinkeye and lice, and the toothless old guys that drank up their meager social security checks at the corner tap. Looking back, I realize that any health crisis or car repair or minor calamity could have sent our family into dire straits. Peace of mind for my parents came from a small garden on borrowed land and some canned reserves just in case.
The Brown Baggers was inspired in part by this personal experience. Until now, I hadn’t fully recognized to what extent. Recalling my mom’s resourcefulness and can-do attitude in challenging times, it is obvious to me that Ms. Appleton’s character was subconsciously modeled after her. Further, as a lunchroom monitor, my mother did not tolerate bullies, much like Ms. Appleton.
The magical elements of The Brown Baggers come from my time spent in the garden. The act of planting seeds, watering dirt, and watching something grow from nothing is a miraculous process. Sitting quietly near the rows of corn, I could hear the eerie creak of stalks pushing upwards as the cobs swelled with milk. I smelled the sweet scent of peppers and pressed the warm skins of newborn tomatoes to my cheek. Among the sprawling vines and curling tendrils of the cucumber patch, I swear I could see the vegetables morphing and multiplying right before my eyes. The garden in full bloom was a gift from the heavens that gave and gave and gave all summer long.
One of the major themes in The Brown Baggers is based on my belief that whole communities can be uplifted by the fruits of their labor as exemplified by my own experiences. To some, this notion will sound trite and corny. Trust me, it’s not corny to a mother much like my own who didn’t know how she would feed her kids though winter. I am living proof that a garden can be a godsend for families that sometimes find themselves living on the edge of poverty.
There are many educators who have put this idea to the test in schools across the country following the model of The Edible Schoolyard founded by Alice Waters at Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, California over twenty years ago. Children today are gaining hands-on experience in school gardens, learning important academic lessons while growing, cooking, and enjoying a bounty of wholesome, delicious food. The Brown Baggers illustrates the way in which locally sourced, sustainably grown foods are the foundation to a healthy, thriving community.
The Brown Blogger will be a regular feature of my website and will highlight
the people and programs that are at the heart of this movement.