Friday, February 19, 2010

Notes from a Volunteer

As a member of the food industry, and someone with an intense passion for cuisine, I came to the Youth Garden interested in learning about where my food came from. I wanted to see my produce in action, in a sense. Growing up in a city, I had never really had much of an opportunity to interact with my vegetables as living things. Reading Michael Pollan and learning about the local food movements made me acutely aware of my ignorance, and I wanted to change that.

Of course, as I soon learned being a volunteer, I wasn’t just watching and learning – I was working! Gardening is serious, sweaty physical labor. The first day I arrived, we spent four hours shoveling soil into neat rows where we would later plant tomatoes. I was sore after—but it felt great. The experience afforded me the opportunity to get in touch with nature – quite literally. Not to ruin the glamorous ideal of garden work—it's funny in retrospect, but I guess I thought I’d be spending the time planting seeds and smelling herbs-- but most of the time I was on the ground pulling weeds.

Ah, weeding.

As Chris, Garden Coordinator extraordinaire, taught us on the very first day, weeding is a task that one must learn to love in an organic garden, because your hands are really the only tools you have to keep these incessant invaders from overtaking the delicate vegetables you’re trying to grow.  This agricultural aspect of volunteering at the Youth Garden was very neat, and it inspired me to start my own container garden at home (maybe so that I could spend more time smelling herbs and admiring produce between weeding). I was lucky to have access to some of the best gardening consultants around, as both the staff and the volunteers are extremely knowledgeable gardeners, and they helped me have a very successful first effort.

However, the most fulfilling part of working at the Youth Garden was not the horticultural expertise I gleaned, nor the break-time snacking on sun-ripened strawberries, nor even the pleasure of pulling that last weed from between the rows of potatoes.

The most fulfilling part was working with the children and the families in the Growing Food, Growing Together program, and watching THEM learn the amazing things the garden has to teach. Kids who have barely had access to produce from a grocery store are able to snap a fresh stalk of asparagus out of the ground and eat it – right out of the ground! I saw the families I worked with develop a connection with nature and a fascination with the growth cycle. All of this made them very excited, of course, to be able to bring home the fruits of their labor and eat what they had been working so hard to produce.

During this moment of dietary crisis we are living, with skyrocketing rates of obesity and diabetes, it was inspiring to see the way that this experience could empower these children and families – who happen to come from a population that is most at risk for obesity and diabetes—to learn to grow, cook, and most importantly, enjoy vegetables, and the positive impact that this could have on their community.  As someone who hopes to work to change our nation’s dietary habits, I see this as a very powerful program, which, if expanded, could have a huge impact on our country’s health and well-being.

My volunteer experience at the Washington Youth Garden was exciting, moving, and above all, a lot of fun.  I tried to share the love by bringing as many friends along as I could, and yes I did manage to have several repeat gardeners (a great feat, when you realize what an 8 a.m. wake up call on a Saturday morning means to a 20-something).  I strongly encourage anyone who is interested in food, nature, or people to go ahead and spend a morning at Garden.

I have great respect and admiration for the mission of the Washington Youth Garden, as well as for the staff and dedicated volunteers that make it happen.  It was a fantastic summer for me and I feel privileged to have had the chance to volunteer there.  Looking forward to next season!

Mariana Cotlear, a novice gardener, is a graduate student. She hopes to work to prevent obesity via nutritional and culinary education and public awareness campaigns. She can be reached at

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