Victory Gardens Address Food Insecurity through Service Learning

The Illinois Social Science standards have students address essential questions in history to help students be personally responsible citizens in their communities. Further, two of the historical questions around the theme of civic participation in the new Educating for American Democracy Roadmap ask, “How have Americans come together in groups, made decisions, and affected their communities, the country, and the world” and “How can that history inform our civic participation today?” Brad Marcy, a history teacher from LeRoy High School addressed both standards and these important historical questions when he engaged his students in an examination of homefront efforts in the United States during the World Wars to address issues of food insecurity past and present. The lessons learned inspired students to take informed action in their community to help neighbors in need.

Brad is one of 26 educators participating in the Guardians of Democracy Microcredential Program with Volunteer Generation Fund support from Serve Illinois to facilitate service learning opportunities for classrooms to work together for the common good of Illinois. We asked Brad to share a bit more about his experience of using historical inquiry to take informed action to develop the knowledge, skills, and dispositions of participatory citizenship. Here are his responses.

Briefly describe your service-learning project.

This project was anchored in our discussions of home front efforts during WWI and WWII. Students were inspired by the ways in which communities pitched in and worked together to overcome the challenges of the Great Depression and massive military mobilization. When discussing rationing and relief efforts, students seemed interested in the discussions on food insecurity. Upon deeper inquiry, they were surprised to learn that food-insecure homes can still be found in nearly every corner of the nation. Further, they learned that the global pandemic and the resulting economic tumult have exacerbated the issue. This led them to ask the essential question of “Is food insecurity a public or private issue?” After a spirited and stimulating deliberative discussion, the students settled on food insecurity being a public issue that requires both government and private citizens to act. They set to task brainstorming ways in which they could affect real food insecurity changes here in our small community. Ultimately, they fell back upon their lessons on the WWI, Great Depression, and WWII home fronts and decided to build their own Relief/Victory Gardens.

How did this activity deepen students’ disciplinary content knowledge and/or meet learning targets?

The connections are apparent when considering that students reverted to their earlier lessons on Victory Gardens and Relief Gardens as their vehicle to positively impact their community. Some student reflections included:

  • “I think that going through the WWI and WW2 Victory Gardens really showed what it was like during that time and why it was needed. I also think it showed why we need one in town for the people that need the food.”
  • “I liked learning how to make a logo and then making my own (see image to the left and also view the logo in a student-created PSA). I enjoyed taking advantage of this opportunity to try something new and to help with something that is for the community. I feel like this project was the most meaningful project I have ever done because people will actually use something that I helped create.”
  • “Despite the short time we had on this project, I still feel we as a grade came together for a very reasonable cause. It was very interesting to learn about the Victory Garden and it’s values. Especially for a little town like LeRoy where I would have thought that we wouldn’t have needed it. But as it turns out, it’s going to help our community out a lot. And it excites me to see just how far it will go in our community, and I hope that we get more and more organizations on board to help us in the future. Because when we get more people to help us, we will be able to help the community even more.”

How did this project deepen students’ knowledge of themselves and their community?

Students developed deeper understandings of their community by researching USDA and Census Bureau statistics on food insecurity within their own communities that they had previously been oblivious to. They were shocked to learn that they share classrooms with students who do not know if they will have enough food in their homes for dinner tonight. This new knowledge provoked a visible emotional reaction from my students. They were moved to action. They also thought about their own privilege to be ignorant of such suffering.

What comes next? What did students identify as future opportunities to address this essential question?

My students are already talking about caring for the victory gardens over the summer and many have already spent time on weekends out at the gardens to ensure their success. Further, they’ve already discussed seeking future grant funding to expand the gardens’ size. They’ve been working hard to build a coalition in our town to end food insecurity in LeRoy.

What advice would you give teachers thinking about opportunities for engaging their students in service-learning?

The hardest part is getting started. If you wait until you’re ready and have every detail planned out, you’ll never do it. Jump in with both feet, hand the reins over to your students and trust them. It may look different than you imagined but, in my experience, it will often be better than you had imagined.