Heritage, Health, and Gardening from an Italian American

Growing up in rural Maryland, I remember always having a garden, one that my parents worked on diligently each year to grow fresh food for our family. This garden was central to our family. My parents took great pride in it and were happy to show us the importance of growing and producing our own food.

Our family tradition of gardening stems from our Italian-American heritage (as I mentioned in a previous post here). My father, a first generation Italian-American, preserved the culture of gardening in our family using what he learned from his grandmother and his father. They were natives of Abruzzo, Italy – a major agricultural region known for its picturesque landscapes, breathtaking ancient hilltop villages, and for being home to Italy’s oldest national park.

My grandfather left Italy during World War II, at the crux of Mussolini’s fascist rule, to start another life in the “New World”. But what lied ahead of him was not the same agricultural land as what he left behind.

His new home in America was full of industrialization and factories. But even with this new lifestyle and while working as a steelworker, my grandfather continued his tradition of gardening and agriculture in the little land he had in Western Pennsylvania. As a little girl, I remember him pridefully showing me his garden, how he still grew tomatoes and peppers like he had in his homeland.

My grandfather was not the only one in my family who promoted the gardening tradition. My paternal great-grandmother, a spitfire of a woman, made everything from scratch from ingredients she obtained straight from the land.

My father often tells me stories about how at the age of 12, my great-granny (as we all called her) left Italy for an arranged marriage to an Italian man in America. This woman was no softy. She had 13 kids and raised a small farm by herself on one acre land in Western Pennsylvania to produce food for her massive family.

For her, it was not even a question on whether to continue her farming practices in this new country. It was her tradition and her duty to ensure food for her family. My father even jokes that she made her own moonshine that she may or may not have sold during the Prohibition. She was devoted to surviving anyway that she could in this new country for her family while keeping her Italian traditions.

My great-granny lived well into her 90’s and died not of a heart attack or Alzheimer’s, but of old age (not so common nowadays). My dad jokes she lived this long because she grew all her own food and never trusted anything from the grocery store.

My grandfather and great-granny had a major impact on my father. They instilled in him the tradition and importance of earth and sustainability. This was passed down to my family. Both my mom and dad are amazing gardeners. We grew a wide assortment of vegetables: peppers, tomatoes (that we canned for our family’s Italian sauce recipe), lettuce, carrots, zucchini, cucumbers, the list just goes on. And all of it grown organically and sustainably, the way my relatives did in Italy.

However, as my brother and I grew up, things became incredibly busy. Our garden died off, killed by the American lifestyle of stressful full time jobs and constant extracurricular activities. The sacrifices they made to ensure that we could live the American dream, to send us to college and to live a better life in this country, resulted in the loss of traditions and beliefs that my culture lived by for centuries.

After years passed, I began my PhD focusing on childhood obesity, and its ramifications on the United States (along with other countries) as a major public health epidemic. I came to realize the true importance of food in preventing disease and how broken our food system is in this country. With bad agricultural practices, industrialized/factory farming, and big food corporations pushing toxic, sugarfied, processed food on our children, it is no wonder the obesity epidemic has become so widespread.

As I worked on my research, memories came back of my roots and culture as an Italian-American and what my family instilled in me with their garden. I swear to this day that the garden and those traditions protected me from becoming one of the numerous obese children in our country and helped me form a positive outlook on food. My family’s culture taught me so much about the central importance of food as medicine and as a main factor in health, along with its importance in sustainability and protecting the earth. Only recently have I fully grasped how important these values truly were to my upbringing and health.

As Americans, we often take for granted the food that is provided to us and where it comes from. We very rarely focus on freshness and quality of the vegetables and fruits we eat. Yet it has been shown that fresher, organically grown vegetables and fruits contain higher levels of nutrients.

This kind of fresh high-quality produce can be had by anyone who takes the time and effort to grow it themselves. But, the land that we buy and put fences around is not taken care of. Many people have huge, beautiful yards, but what do we do with them? Nothing. We let grass grow, but we do not plant food for our families.

Specifically the poor in our country do not have time, the education, nor the money to provide nutritious food for their families. Bad food is cheap, and minorities, immigrants, and the less fortunate suffer the most from obesity and the chronic diseases that come with it.

I have realized how important it is to educate others on these gardening and food traditions; how high quality food can be made in your backyard, even with a small space. My Italian-American background and ethnicity brings back nostalgia of the importance of gardening, to instill family tradition and values, and to help remain as an independent, sustainable entity. All of these practices can help prevent obesity in our country – helping people live better fuller and healthier lives, while at the same time taking care of the earth.

Lately, we have been ignoring the fact that food is medicine and that what you eat is so essential to your health. It is engrained in our American culture to think this way. What I want to inspire in others is that we can change this viewpoint. We can adapt and realize that by paying attention to food, you can prevent the chronic illnesses that result from this cultural problem. We can learn from other cultures (such as the Italian, French, and many others) how food is such a vital part of life. If we take this viewpoint as Americans, we can prevent and eliminate obesity and all the harm it causes in our world.

Please share any experiences you have with gardening or culture to treat food as medicine. I would love to hear your thoughts. And if you want to learn how to incorporate these food values into your life for a healthier lifestyle, take a look at my post on Food Lessons from Italian Culture.

About the Author

Sarah Ferrante, Ph.D.

2 Comments on “Heritage, Health, and Gardening from an Italian American”

  1. Pingback: Seed-Starting: The Start of our Garden :) - Food Move Collective

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