Eighty percent of America’s indigenous foods have gone extinct. Unlike wild populations that suffer when over-harvested, domesticated species (which comprise the bulk of the modern diet) face extinction precisely when we cease to farm them. In place of the hundreds of kinds of apples available just a century ago, most supermarkets today offer five at most; the varieties that have fallen out of favor are soon lost forever.
It might seem paradoxical, but when you pay someone to raise a fruit, vegetable or animal for you to eat, you help keep that species alive.
With this in mind, seven of the country’s leading conservation, education, and food organizations joined forces last year to form a project called Renewing America’s Food Traditions (RAFT) with the motto “Eat It to Save It.” Run out of the Brooklyn-based headquarters of Slow Food USA, RAFT got right to work launching a replanting effort: this spring, 24 varieties of endangered fruits and vegetables went into fields on 438 farms in 37 states.
These rare seeds were also sown by nine and ten year olds from across the borough at the Children’s Garden, founded at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in 1913 by schoolteacher Ellen Eddy. That first year almost 200 children applied for the 5’x7’ plots; over 800 participate today.
Two RAFT partners, Seed Savers Exchange and Native Seeds/SEARCH, sent endangered seeds and seedlings to the Children’s Garden. The kids planted Moon and Stars Watermelons, Burbank Tomatoes, Cherokee Purple Tomatoes, German Pink Tomatoes, Boston Marrow Squash, and Wenk’s Hot Peppers. As the plants grew, so did the kids’ understanding of stewardship and taste. Said farmer and RAFT intern Adrian Almquist, “this living cultural treasure serves as a continual reminder to children of their national food heritage and the power of planting a single seed.” What a delicious way to stave off extinction.