In times of uncertainty, stress and unrest, people turn to cultivating their own. During 2007’s economic slump, there was a surge in urban farming and community gardens. People were losing their jobs all over the country and rising concerns for feeding your family and making ends meet for many meant rolling up sleeves and planting some seeds. The recent panic that set in when the coronavirus hit had similar immediate affects on the economy. Businesses had to shut their doors, people lost their jobs, and the unnecessary hoarding of foods (and paper products – that was a weird knee-jerk reaction to crisis!) left store shelves virtually empty and many people without basics. People starting questioning, if I can’t get toilet paper, am I going to be able to get food? More people than ever before turned to planning out vegetable gardens and chicken coops. It was surprising at first because growing is just what we do, but realizing that so many people were on board with growing food and sharing food in their communities was something I got pretty jazzed about.
I kind of feel like the affect our panicked population had on grocery store shelves gave large numbers of people a swift kick. Like, it’s sink or swim time because now there’s not enough to go around. As a result, an unprecedented number of urban farms, community gardens and home-growers have sprung up since the coronavirus had us all quarantined. Hence, “quarantine gardening.” Throughout history there have been pockets of time when people have had to become more self-reliant. “Victory Gardens” were first introduced in 1914 by President Wilson who called on Americans to plant vegetable gardens to ward off the possible threat of food shortages. People all over the country responded to the challenge and thought of it as a civic and patriotic duty. 15 million families planted gardens and the U.S. became the lead supplier of seeds for the rest of the world. Schools implemented Victory Gardens on school yard land (what a concept!) and taught 2.5 million children where food comes from and the importance of community growing. In 1919 schools with Victory Gardens contributed 40% of the produce and fruits for the nation, valued at 48 million dollars at the time. This world-wide campaign had continued success even through WW II when again, the government encouraged people to grow food and contribute to the food chain, in part, so there was enough food to ship to military troops. In 1942, nearly 15 million families planted Victory Gardens. In 1944 that number grew to over 20 million. These statistics are remarkable even by today’s standards. However, in reading about the Victory Gardens, I learned many communities didn’t reap the benefit of bounty grown and so different food movements evolved and growing would not only be a rural exercise, but inner-city sites popped up on underutilized lots to encourage “getting back to your roots.”
It’s time again for social solidarity. So many people need assistance and supports and guidance in healthier lifestyles. The community gardens popping up all over the country are largely based on needs of that community, extension programs to sustain growing and funding, and the understanding that without this effort, many of our neighbors won’t have enough to eat. We need to make a gallant effort to do what Victory Gardens did in the 20’s and 40’s to ensure a food supply and to model what Freedom Farmers have been doing since the the 60’s to provide a means for community wellness, self-reliance, and political resistance. In 1969, Fannie Lou Hamer, an American voting and women’s rights activist, community organizer, and a leader in the civil rights movement founded the Freedom Farm Cooperative and “Pig Project”, also known as the “pig bank”. Her goal was to empower Black farmers and sharecroppers, who had been at the mercy of the local white landowners for generations and enable them to make a living and at the same time feed the poorest of families in their communities. The cooperative initiative was to offer support to community members who had lost their jobs or had been evicted for exercising their right to vote. The land that was purchased was used to grow cash crops like soy and cotton, and to grow foods like cucumbers, peas, butter beans, squash, collard greens and potatoes to feed families. The pig bank provided a source of protein to families who could not afford the cost of meat. Hamer received contributions for the Pig Project from the National Council of Negro Women. Families could receive a piglet to raise and breed as a source of income and also donate piglets to other families in need. The Freedom Farm Cooperative included a Head Start program, a job training center, a tool bank, and several income-generating enterprises, such as a garment factory and sewing cooperative, and of course community gardens and even a commercial kitchen. Hamer’s mantra was “to free ourselves, we must feed ourselves.” She believed that the interest in farming, growing food, and raising animals for protein arose from an intrinsic understanding of the importance of those words. While The Freedom Farm Cooperative could not sustain itself due to Hamer’s health and therefore lack of funding, there are young farmers like Leah Penniman who deserves applause for the work she is doing. As cofounder of Soul Fire Farms (https://www.soulfirefarm.org and Author of Farming While Black) she promotes networking diverse communities to share in land – any land – for the purpose of sustainable agriculture, health and environment justice. Farms like Soul Fire Farms work to dismantle the oppressive structures that misguide food systems and provide people with food knowledge to gain healthier lifestyles. We live in an area where there’s a growing number of farmers bringing organic, local foods to communities who otherwise would not have access. Keeping these efforts alive right now is critical, but even during non-pandemic, peaceful times. We need to motivate communities to learn the importance of growing, to support local farmer’s and to become “agents in the food system” so all people have access to good food and we’re not entirely bound to corporate food systems.
The ridiculous hoarding we witnessed recently depicted the polar opposite of what these trail-blazers like Fannie Lou Hamer set out to instill. The news of COVID-19 came out of left field and pure panic followed because most communities aren’t ready for a crisis of this magnitude. There was no “community” in the first weeks of this pandemic. Very few looked out for others well-being. They took what they could get their hands on and left very little for others. The hoarding definitely affected us on a few visits to the store, but we weren’t panicked. We were well under way with our garden planning when the pandemic hit ~ most of our seeds were starting to sprout, our soil had been amended, Mac had tilled in all our composting, and we were ready to plant. This is what we do every year – crisis or not. Pandemic or not. When we did get a bit panicked was when Seed Savers had to cancel our orders because they couldn’t keep up with demand. Going to local nurseries, we didn’t find nearly the variety of starts (or even seeds) that we normally would. Nurseries (and grocery stores) seem to be caught up more now, probably because there seems to be less panic in the air. So, this wave of quarantine gardening, while bizarre in numbers, may have been the silver lining to all the mayhem. And don’t get me wrong when I say bizarre, I think it’s fantastic. It may have been the fabric that restored some people’s sensibility about food and given new found awareness about the importance of growing your own. Because you just never know when you’re gonna get hit with a pandemic.
Growing your own food can give you a sense of hope, security and community in the midst of crisis. It can inspire helping others, sharing your bounty – you know all that good neighborly stuff that seems to burst at the seams when something out of left field affects our “norm.” Gardening and growing as a way of life inspires community and sharing. Even if it’s just a simple gesture like sharing a bouquet of flowers, a bowl of berries, or off-loading a truckload of season-end zucchini. Other than the years we lived in San Francisco (where I did have herb boxes and patio tomatoes!), we have always had a garden, even when I was a kid. So did most of our relatives and neighbors. Some of my fondest childhood memories include picking handfuls of peas and eating them in the garden rows of my great-aunt’s backyard or picking blackberries for cobblers at our Grandparent’s lake house. As kids, we had access to food from the garden and surrounding areas. Other than the occasional penny candy from the corner store, we just ate fresh food. In our family there was a lot of neighborhood swaps of fruits and vegetables and hours sitting around the table snapping the tips off beans, peeling apples for pies, seeding tomatoes for the ongoing simmering of sauces and soups. We ate well throughout the winter with all the foods we grew and preserved and never had canned soup! It’s why we have a garden today. Our kids have had much of the same access to foods we had when we were young. I don’t can foods like my Mother and Grandmother did, but we do preserve an ample amount. We love the process of growing and preserving and we love knowing that the food we grow is better than any food you could get on a grocery store shelf. We have 89 different foods in our 1/2 acre yard. Our vegetable garden is where the highest numbers come from with a variety of heirloom tomatoes, assorted peppers, tomatillos, fava beans and pole beans, purple, red and yukon gold potatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, chard, beets, sorrel, cucumbers, strawberries, lots of herbs, jerusalem artichokes, eggplant, butternut, acorn, spaghetti and turban squash. We also have pears, figs, plums, peaches, raspberries, marionberries, blueberries, grapes, and hazelnuts. Our garden is the first thing I tend to in the morning and the last thing I look at before the sun goes down. It’s an amazing process. We also support local organic farmers throughout the season. Our garden contributes a lot of food for our family and our small soup business and we back it up with foods from organic farmers within miles of our home.
I hope the home-growing-community-garden-urban-farmer-movement continues with the same urgency we’re seeing now. Food shortages are always very real. In parts of the country, particularly inner-city where the people will likely suffer more when food systems are disrupted, there’s even more need to utilize available space and bring back The Freedom Farms and The Victory Farms and help people successfully enterprise for the benefit of all their community. Understanding the importance of growing and teaching our children not only about good food choices, but where good food comes from, about self-reliance, sharing and to endeavor sustainability is a critical lesson. There is a lot of uncertainty and unrest in the world right now, but we’ve been here before. We’ve been given valuable lessons by brilliant people – we just need to look at them again.
GROW FOOD! EAT SOUP! SIP BROTH! STAY HEALTHY! HELP SOMEONE IN NEED!