Much more than vegetables
Much more than vegetables
In the Jardins de Cocagne gardens the jobless and homeless find self-confidence and support in creating a future.
How can people in difficult circumstances build autonomous lives? The answer might be found in the Jardins de Cocagne: by cultivating vegetables. Initiated in 1991 by Jean-Guy Henckel, the project has now taken root in several French regions. These gardens, whose name translates into the “Gardens of Plenty”, take in men and women in precarious living situations, such as welfare recipients, the long-term unemployed, or the homeless. Hired under a government-supported employment contract, they grow organic produce, which is then sold to subscribers by the basket. ofFor up to two years, the gardeners work 24 hours a week for minimum wage under the guidance of professional vegetable farmers and social workers. “The objective here is not to exploit people out of commercial interest,” Henckel explains. “We are conflict mediators, because we manage to unite three feuding sisters: Society, Business, and Ecology. The Jardins de Cocagne must be economically viable, yet without turning a blind eye to human beings in their existential need, and without harming the planet.”
Networking and expanding
In order to consolidate its activities, the Cocagne network is currently building a donor fund consisting of tax-exempt private as well as corporate and public donations. Following the concept from the earth into the basket, the new Planète Sésame restaurants are now defining the motto as from the basket onto the plate. The restaurants are operated by people in reintegration programs and supplied with produce from the gardens. New projects are being launched, such as the Fleurs de Cocagne gardens that specialize in flower production. The latest Cocagne branch is located in “Europe’s Silicon Valley” on the Saclay plateau, right next to the technological research center Commissariat à l’énergie atomique et aux énergies alternatives, the business college École des Hautes Études Commerciales, and the Centrale, AgroParisTech, Polytechnique—an ambitious project featuring a farm, a restaurant, a hostel, and an 18-hectare organic vegetable garden.
On an estate surrounding a seventeenth-century stone mansion, too, 18 workers are employed in professional and social reintegration programs. This manor is the serene backdrop of a Cocagne garden opened in March 2010 around a tree-lined pond, there are four hectares of fine organic soil, and eight greenhouses. Several dozen beehives, maintained by two beekeepers, as well as an educational community garden, border the fields, and 65 families participate in workshops on organic nutrition, the forest as a food source, wild plants, etc. Leigh, the volunteer who teaches these workshops, explains: “This garden is a great tool to publicize Cocagne. It raises people’s awareness of ecological issues and gets the gardeners, residents, and subscribers to interact with one another.”
Helping men and women to get back on their feet
The reintegration rate of the Cocagne vegetable farmers is encouraging and has increased each year. Approximately 30 per cent of them find gainful employment upon completion of their experience, 10 per cent go on to take continuing education classes, and 8 per cent continue with their reintegration program. Beyond these successes, the indirect benefits from two years in the garden are noteworthy: 38 per cent of participants manage to get a grip on their living situations, or their debts. These are net savings in terms of public social services. “Mentoring is as important as professional reintegration,” Henckel emphasizes. “It allows men and women to get back on their feet, physically and emotionally, because in order to find your place in society, you need a minimum level of confidence. Even more than boasting about our numbers, we want to tell the human stories.”
“We work with them to create a career roadmap,” explains reintegration counsellor Virginie Mabille. “We are basically re-teaching them to get up in the morning, show up on time, and respect the rules of the workplace. We want to motivate them to leave with a concrete educational plan or a vision for a job quest when the year is over.” Producing vegetables is thus not the objective per se. Only some participants actually make gardening their future career.
Mohamed appreciates the atmosphere in this garden, where he started working six months ago. “I used to be a carpenter, but I was laid off for economic reasons. For years, I have constantly been between jobs... I have pretty much worked in every field there is!” Now, at 39, his professional goal is to become not a vegetable farmer but a paramedic. “The whole team helped me define my objective, get an internship, and become certified as a paramedic. I also received psychological support, because I have been through some rough times in my life.”
In fact, psychological support is crucial in any effort to help a shipwrecked person rediscover the joy of living. “The support is provided by psychologists and addiction centres, and we also plan to integrate social therapists,” confirms Mabille. But there are other barriers to professional success that must be overcome: some participants are illiterate; 90 per cent do not know how to use a computer and are unable to write their own resume; most do not have a driver’s license. The greatest obstacles, however, are health and housing problems. Many live in shelters or have no permanent residence. It is therefore vital to provide comprehensive support to get these men and women back into the driver’s seats of their own lives.
It is four o’clock in the afternoon, time to distribute the vegetable baskets. Zucchini, fennel, parsley, strawberries, and tomatoes shine brightly in their summer colours. Gardeners and subscribers are chatting, exchanging the latest news, and for a moment, everyone forgets about their problems. There is no doubt about it: a Cocagne garden is about much more than vegetables.