By: Jason Mandala
Intentionally teaching children about sustainable farming and eating is something that has been done in the United States for over 20 years, it is something I have been doing for over 9 years with a non-profit in Missoula, Montana (Garden City Harvest). But it is a new endeavor in Vietnam. Many of the reasons for taking on such a task are the same, but many are different. What are those reasons? And why do this kind of work in Vietnam?
In the United States we have a serious issue with obesity. It is estimated that around roughly 35% of our population is obese, this leads to drastic health problems and massive increases in the cost of health care. Teaching children at an early age about sustainable agriculture is one way we have found to help children think more about eating healthy, nutritious food. But in Vietnam there is no problem with obesity. In fact, Vietnam has one of the lowest rates of obesity in the world, just under 2%. In the United States only about 2% of our population is engaged in agriculture as a profession, while in Vietnam it is around 50%. So, considering these massive differences, why do we need to teach children in Vietnam about sustainable agriculture and healthy eating? If so many people are engaged in agriculture in Vietnam, shouldn’t everyone understand its importance? The answer is a resounding "no". Why? Because there is a very big difference between conventional agriculture (the dominant system use in Vietnam) and sustainable agriculture. So, why attempt this kind of education? Well, the answer (in both countries) can come back to the goal of creating citizens that care about the land, water, wildlife, and people enough to protect them from the ills of conventional agriculture.
While both countries demographics are very different in regards to health and number of farmers, both countries are very similar in their use of conventional agricultural systems. This includes excessive use of artificial pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. These inputs have a large negative impact on soil health, water supplies, and ecosystem health. Also, in both countries the vast majority of agriculture is done by mono-cropping. This also has many negative impacts for our environment.
As active participants in our ecosystems, our choices impact not only our human communities buy the non-human members of our ecosystem as well. In a world that is dealing with the many new challenges of climate change it is our responsibility to limit the ill effects of our actions on our ecosystems. One way we hope to achieve this goal is by teaching children from a young age about the importance and connections of agriculture to our everyday lives. Each day we eat, usually multiple times, meaning we are an active participant in the agricultural system, our choices impact the way it works, and hence, its impacts on our environment.
With the help of the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI), the University of Montana Mansfield Center, and the U.S. State Department I have been lucky enough to be connected with an NGO in Hanoi, Vietnam that wants to begin doing this very important work with schools, students, and teachers. Action for the City is an NGO with the goal to improve the quality of life of residents in Vietnam. This is a grand mission, but if you look closer you will see the goal is to do this by creating more sustainable communities. In my first week here I have seen much and learned a lot, but one thing here is clearly the same as my experiences in the United States, people are not connected to where their food comes from.
So, as we have the opportunity to share each others successes and failures, and learn about the differences and similarities of our cultures and food systems, we will each day work to help create sustainable communities through our most base commonality, eating.
Since our partnership has begun, Action for the City has created school gardens to help urban youth in Hanoi understand more about their food system and the importance of eating healthy. They are also working on developing unique community gardens systems to connect neighbors to each other and to food and gardening. We will continue to share resources including curriculums, teaching models, how-to guides, and new ideas to help both organizations achieve their goals.
The road is long and filled with many challenges both here in Vietnam and back in the United States. But partnerships like the one we now have with Action for the City will help both organizations face these challenges in the future. And the final goal is the same, to help create global citizens that are good stewards of both our human communities and our ecosystems.
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