The Freedom Garden Initiative Is Giving New Meaning To Victory Gardens
Jun. 19, 2020
By Olivia Harrison
Like so many small businesses in the wake of COVID-19, Studio Lily Kwong, a landscape design studio founded in 2017 by landscape artist Lily Kwong, postponed its major projects. When the pandemic hit, the studio, which is known for its large-scale botanical art installations realized it needed to pivot its 2020 plans. With new restrictions and the revelation that coronavirus was posing a major threat to food access, Kwong and her team began looking to history for inspiration. They discovered that smaller-scale planting projects could be the best way to continue the studio’s mission to connect people to nature. On April 27, Studio Lily Kwong launched its Freedom Garden initiative, which is working to address the very real food insecurity problem America is facing right now.
In a conversation with Refinery29, Lily Kwong shared that “Victory Gardens” started in the context of another pandemic, the infamous influenza outbreak of 1918. “These vegetable, fruit, and herb gardens planted in backyards, empty lots, and city rooftops across the nation were promoted by the U.S. government,” she shares. If you’ve ever taken a U.S. history class, you’ve likely seen propaganda posters prompting citizens to plant Victory Gardens during World War II as a way to aid the war effort from home. It was during this time, according to Kwong’s research, that the Victory Garden movement really flourished — both figuratively and literally. “It’s estimated that home, school, and community gardeners produced close to 40% of the country’s fresh vegetables from about 20 million gardens — or an astonishing 9 to 10 million tons of produce, an amount equal to all commercial production of fresh vegetables in the early 1940s,” the landscape artists tells us.
These community, family, and individual-tended gardens were, in the past, a response to food crises caused by wars and pandemics. We’re facing a similar crisis now. In a report issued in April, the United Nations’ World Food Programme (WFP) shared data that showed the coronavirus pandemic could double the number of people suffering from acute food insecurity this year to around 265 million globally. Given this horrific prediction, Kwong and her team thought it made sense to resurrect the gardening movement once again. However, they’ve also made a few important updates.
“The history of WWII Victory Gardens is a fraught one,” Kwong explains. “The gardens spread at the same time as anti-Asian sentiment, and my family, though Chinese, were also impacted as recent immigrants. Many of our Japanese-American brothers and sisters were already small-scale gardeners of significant talent, and white farmers seized their farms and smallholdings when the Japanese-American population was inhumanely interned, leaving many destitute after the war.”
Because of the movement’s racist history, Kwong and her team have the goal to distinguish the next wave of civilian gardens by making thoughtful changes, starting with the name. “It was very intentional that we change the name of our growing movement from ‘Victory Gardens’ to ‘Freedom Gardens'” she says. “Our studio felt the word ‘Victory’ was too connected with conquest and war. ‘Freedom’ felt much more empowering and inclusive. Our movement is about freedom from a centralized food system, freedom from illness (both societal and physical), and freedom to reconnect with the land and ourselves”
Kwong is also highlighting the important role the Black community has played in the modern fight for access to nutritious food and the movement’s intrinsic link to racial justice. “The fight for sustainability and climate change can not exist without fighting for racial and social justice,” she recently wrote on Instagram. “As a studio we need to listen, learn, reflect, and support the individuals, farms, organizations that have been doing this work.”
Another key change is how Studio Lily Kwong is promoting the initiative. Given the movement’s problematic past, it will come as no surprise that WWII-era propaganda posters only featured white gardeners. With that in mind, the studio partnered with illustrator Rajiv Fernandez of Lil’Icon to create new images, which show “what a modern Freedom Gardens movement could look like.”
Of course, social media, a tool that wasn’t around during WII, has played a role in spreading the word about Freedom Gardens. I, for one, found out about the studio’s initiative through the @freedom_gardens Instagram account. There, Kwong shares Fernandez’s illustrations, photos from her own gardening projects, and photos and stories from others joining the movement. In the first few weeks, Kwong says she received hundreds of messages and garden submissions from growers across the world.
Following the May 25 police killing of George Floyd and the protests and movement it ignited across the world, the studio, like so many other organizations, began looking for specific ways it could show up in the fight for racial justice. Shannon Lai, Studio Lily Kwong’s resident urban farmer, put together a working Google Doc of direct ways to support Black-owned farms and organizations that support Black farmers. It now contains over 200 resources. A link to the Doc is shared in the bio of the Freedom Garden’s Instagram account. There, the studio also announced that Lai, who formerly worked as the farm manager at Brooklyn Grange, is offering hour-long one-on-one consultations for people starting their first edible garden or needing advice on current crops. Each session costs $100, and 100% of the proceeds will be donated to Black-owned farms and organizations that have been fighting for justice in our food system.
Unlike Victory Gardens of the past, which were encouraged by the government as an act of patriotism, the new chapter of the movement is being championed by people, and social media helps with that. That’s not to say, however, the government can’t play a role in this growing movement. Kwong acknowledges that so much of the original Victory Gardens movement’s success was due to government support and points out that many community gardens across the country are on city-owned land. The studio hopes to connect with policy-makers and local leaders to bring more community-driven gardens to our city centers. Already, they’re collaborating with Farmer Nick, an advocate for the Essential Farmers Project, which has been recruiting a reserve of volunteers to install and maintain pop-up farm sites.
“The Freedom Gardens movement is an act of survival and regeneration more than an act of protest,” Kwong says. “To connect with the land available to us — even if it is just a small pot of soil on our fire escapes — is to take our power back. To cultivate abundance in our own backyards is to create more resilient communities. To feed ourselves with fresh, untainted fruit and vegetables will empower us and safeguard us from an increasingly volatile centralized food system.”
Kwong calls gardening a “radical act of self-care,” and wants people to know that this movement isn’t just for folks with sprawling backyards. “I want everyone to feel like they can start a Freedom Garden no matter their financial or material resources — our team is dedicated to demystifying urban farming and making this movement as inclusive and dynamic as possible,” she shares. You can start in your own kitchen with help from a series of diagrams created through Lily Kwong Studio’s recent collaboration with industrial designer Lily Consuelo Saporta Tagiuri. “Lily T. is based in Greenpoint, Brooklyn with no outdoor space and started regenerating veggies bought from her local grocery store like lettuce, leeks, peppers, bok choy, and beets simply in cups of water with no soil at all,” Kwong explains. “She recently harvested her bountiful apartment garden to make homemade dumplings!”
If you want to bring the movement to your community, Kwong says the best way to generate interest from others is by gardening yourself first. “Start in your own backyard, stoop, or fire escape and talk about it (at a safe distance) to your neighbors, your friends, your family,” she says. “There’s a ripple effect. By leading through action, suddenly the people around our core team have started asking us questions and then growing along with us.”