Last summer I became sandwiched between two political issues that appear sympathetic, but on
close scrutiny show a profound and dissonant contradiction deep in the fertile soil of
Recently, First Lady Michelle Obama boldly proclaimed that the urban poor were at serious
risk of deprivation of fresh produce. The so called “food deserts” stretch from border to
border in the poor and underprivileged sections of every major American city. One of the ways
the First Lady proposed to solve this problem is to expand the size and number of community
However, there is also a trendy, stylish and even sexy movement in contemporary gardening
that preaches the use of 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 over the last
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, since they are loaded with greater amounts of vitamins and
minerals than their distant ancestors.
Over the past several years, contemporary plant breeders have introduced nearly a dozen new
cultivars of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and lettuce that record up to twice the amount of
nutrients than ordinary store bought vegetables. While they don’t have the romantic or
seductive names and stories behind them, such as “Mortgage Lifter” tomato, these new hybrids
deliver vastly more antioxidants and vitamins C and D.
Further ironies abound. According to their zealous advocates, heirloom vegetables have the
virtue of being able to be self-propagated, via do-it-yourself seed-saving techniques. The
argument goes 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 poor and unemployed in the underprivileged communities of America are
expected to spend more than twice the time and effort for less than half the benefits compared
to hybrid seeds—especially the newest, nutrient rich varieties. But no one should underestimate
the poor and unemployed¿ they know value when they harvest it. Give them more!
In addition, 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 today’s “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.
As seen in the Philadelphia Inquirer.