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10 Inspiring Women Moving the World's Food Garden Needle

Oct 03, 2013

As part of KGI's10th Anniversary retrospective, I've been thinking about who's done the most for food gardens over the past 10 years. I started jotting down names and what immediately struck me was that the first eight or so were women.  Now, I can't say that I was completely surprised. Anyone who has watched minute 15 of my TEDx talk knows that I had already recognized that women were doing most of the heavy lifting in the US food garden movement. But in that case, I was referring to the critical "in the trenches" work of starting and maintaining family gardens, school gardens and community gardens at the local level. The list below is something different in that it celebrates 10 gardeners whose leadership and influence are reaching well beyond their town or region.  Once again, I'll seek to head some criticism off at the pass by admitting that there are many other people who I know and probably even more I don't know (especially from other countries) who deserve to be on this list. Please take it for what it is: my best subjective effort to produce a balanced list in terms of geography and sector (e.g. education, advocacy, public policy, philanthropy, business, etc.).  Feel free to recognize and celebrate some of the food gardening women who've inspired you in the comments section below. We can all benefit from knowing their names!

Vandana Shiva (India)

As a first-world gardener, I take a lot for granted. I know that the water will flow when I open the spout, that compost is available for purchase if I can't produce enough of my own and I imagine, naively, that all the vegetable seeds and varieties I'd ever need will always be just a couple mouse-clicks away. Based in the developing world, Dr. Vandana Shiva of Delhi, India has a different perspective which can and should inform others' especially with regard to seeds. Dr. Shiva has been calling out multinational companies' efforts to patent seeds more loudly and effectively than anyone else on the planet. Her organization Navdanya  is currently coordinating a campaign for seed freedom which you can join here:  Dr. Shiva makes my list for sowing the seeds of hope and resistance.


Michelle Obama (USA)

Whether you agree with her politics or her husbands' is a subject of great debate and a debate I won't start here. What most Americans can agree on is that First Lady Michelle Obama has provided some much-needed hope, inspiration and leadership for the country's healthy food movement. Planted in 2009, the White House Kitchen Garden is already a resounding success. It's a family garden, school garden, community garden (for the White House staff community), and food bank garden (hundreds of pounds of food are donated each year) all rolled into one. It's also the most popular part of  the White House garden tour and a popular destination for world leaders who are passing through. Food, gardening and healthy kids aren't the only issues that the First Lady is working on (she's also very engaged in helping veterans and their families), but they seem to be the ones where she's making the biggest impact and I thank her for making our cause her own.


Pam Warhurst (UK)

"Food to share." Those words which appear on a raised bed garden located on the main street of Todmorden, UK sum up the philosophy and work of Pam Warhurst who is the co-founder of the Incredible Edible Project. A few years back, Pam and her main partner-in-crime, Mary Clear, had the brilliantly subversive idea to start planting edibles in public places first and to ask permission second. What started with a few guerilla gardeners has now grown into a badge of pride for their entire village with edibles cropping up in front of the police station (tended by the police), outside hospitals and even on the platform of the train station. What's more, the project is now spreading its roots and shoots around the world.  If you're looking for more inspiration, Pam's TED talk will do the trick


Alice Waters (USA)


No list of inspirational women moving the good food needle forward could be complete without Alice Waters. Her restaurant, Chez Panisse of Berkeley, California, is the eatery most often credited with having inspired the country's farm-to-table movement. While the notion of fresh, delicious, locally-sourced dishes sounds commonplace now, it was revolutionary in the early 1970s when Chez Panisse first opened its doors. While she could have rested comfortably on her culinary laurels, Alice sought ways of expanding the good food revolution to other places she felt it needed to go including the playgrounds and cafeterias of schools across the nation. In the same way that Chez Panisse has inspired thousands of chefs and restaurants, her Edible Schoolyard Project at the Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, California has inspired countless teachers and parents to plant school gardens and teach children to tend them and cook from them. 


Barbara Damrosch (USA)


How does a best-selling garden author handle living with another best-selling garden author? Very gracefully, in the case of Barbara Damrosch of Maine. I first learned of Barbara through reading a book written by her husband, Eliot Coleman. His book led me to one of hers, The Garden Primer , which has become one of my top go-to books when I have something I want to do which I don't know how to do. Barbara also writes a garden column for the Washington Post which reaches, informs and inspires thousands of people each week including some very powerful, inside the beltway folk who could afford to be brought back to earth at the moment. Although she's known nationally, most people don't know how engaged she is in local food, farm and garden issues here in Maine. In addition to running a successful farm, Barbara was also President of the Board of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) seeing it ably through a period of transition. 


Amy Goldman (USA)


As a gardener, artist, best-selling writer, nonprofit leader and philanthropist, Amy Goldman has made numerous contributions of different sorts in support of the food garden cause. As the author of three award-winning books on heirloom vegetables (tomatoes, melons and squash), she's reached thousands of people through the printed word and has also shared her seed-saving message on national television through appearances with Martha Stewart and on PBS's The Victory Garden. She was the President of the Board of Seed Savers Exchange helping to steer it over a rocky stretch of road. She also serves on the Boards of the New York Botanical Garden and the New York Restoration Project.


Karen Washington (USA)


I had the good fortune to meet Karen about five years ago when she and I were both speaking at an event in Columbus, Ohio. I had the misfortune, though, to speak after her and remember saying to myself "how am I possibly going to follow that?" Karen, you need to know, is a passionate person and her passion for urban gardening and food justice are contagious. A life-long resident of New York City, Karen has strived to make her Bronx home a better place to live by turning empty lots into community gardens. On numerous occasions, she has stood up and spoken out for garden protection and preservation. She has served as the president of the New York City Community Garden Coalition and helped launched a City Farms Market, bringing garden fresh vegetables to her neighbors.


Josée Landry (Canada)


It may seem premature for me to include someone who's only been gardening for two years on such a prestigious list, but having met Josée on two occasions and seen her work up close, I know she's deserving. Regular KGI supporters will recognize Josée as having planted what I consider the "world's most famous front yard vegetable garden" along with her equally-inspiring husband, Michel Beauchamp. It's one thing to plant a great garden, but Josée has done much more by taking on the role of a front yard and urban garden advocate through countless media interviews, conferences and, most recently, a film project. Stories of their garden have now travelled around the world and back. Josée may not have foreseen this advocacy role for herself, but sometimes in life the role chooses us and we need to decide whether to accept its offer. Fortunately for all us, Josée replied "oui!" 


Stephanie Alexander (Australia)


It would be very easy to call Stephanie "the Alice Waters of Australia." It would also be incorrect. Like Alice, she founded a successful restaurant, wrote several best-selling cookbooks and started up her own nonprofit organization, the Kitchen Garden Foundation, to help children establish a closer and healthier relationship with food via gardening and cooking. Her foundation is now helping 398 schools across Australia and serving as a model for many school-based food projects abroad as well. What's incorrect about the comparison with Alice Water is that it doesn't capture the uniqueness of Stephanie's vision and path which took her across the world before leading her back home to set her roots deep into the Australian soil. 


Renee Shepherd (USA)


Gardening is many things to many people: a hobby, a form of therapy, a spiritual activity, a way of putting good food on the table for those we love. But gardening is also an industry with billions of dollars spent on seeds, materials, tools, clothing and other products designed to make the gardener's work better or easier. Renee Shepherd earns her way onto this list as a gardening entrepreneur and founder of Renee's Garden Seeds. Seed companies come and go. If Renee's company has grown when others have shrivelled, I think it has everything to do with her "triple bottom line" vision. Her company not only values its employees and customers, but is also striving to do right by people and the planet by taking the Safe Seed pledge and donating seeds to numerous garden causes in the US and abroad. Through her work, Renee is showing that people, profits and the planet don't have to be in conflict. In the future, we'll need more garden entrepreneurs and they would do well to follow Renee's example. 


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