A few weeks ago, I stepped into a grocery store to find a scene I had not experienced in my lifetime: empty shelves. The entire selection of salad greens (both loose and bagged) were gone. Not one head of lettuce was left. The dairy section was about the same. I wasn't looking for meat, but I overheard other customers saying there was none.
This was a completely new experience for me, and I have to say it shook me. I felt the urge to pack everything that was left (that I liked to eat) into my cart. When you've grown up in the land of plenty and endless consumer choice, seeing empty shelf after empty shelf triggers something.
In recent weeks, I’ve heard a lot of talk about growing food. It’s showing up in the media I consume-Tejal Rao wrote about it in the New York Times, and Christine Smith of Seedleaf has a great piece in The Lexington Herald Leader.
I'm hearing about folks planting gardens, building raised beds in backyards, getting chickens, starting seeds in a greenhouse. And granted, this isn’t that unusual in the community I move through, especially in early spring. That’s when gardening gets started. And I host a food show and I've been growing food in my yard for years. So have many of my friends and neighbors.
But I am hearing a new sense of urgency in this garden talk, since the COVID-19 crisis began.
People are saying things like, “now more than ever, we need to be growing our own food” and “a lot of people are wanting to get more self-sufficient with food.” One of my neighbors let me know that she and a few friends were getting seedlings started in a greenhouse, they’d have extra to share, if I knew anyone who would want to grow some food, especially people who maybe haven’t grown food before.
It’s got me thinking...wondering.
On the one hand, of course, I love it. More people, growing more food in their home gardens--that’s a win!
But, also, it’s complicated.
First of all, I am questioning where this drive to grow food is coming from. Is it a 'Victory Garden’ type of response--"citizens, we each need to do our part!" Or, is it a knee-jerk response to crisis, from a particular demographic, to ‘taking control of our food system?’
I mean, I get that. We have an Earth Eats promotional piece (and an interview) with Susanne Babb stating, “Being able to grow your own food is freedom.” Growing food can bring a sense of autonomy, and I am aware that it means different things to different people.
But practically speaking, I don’t see that our food supply is being disrupted all that much right now.* Yes, people have made runs on the grocery store, there is some hoarding going on. And the people who can might be buying more food at one time, to limit trips to the store. Many who don’t normally cook at home are stocking their pantries.
So yes, at first some shelves were thinned out or empty as I noted above. But they are generally getting replenished. Growers are still producing food, truck drivers are still delivering pallets, grocery store employees are still stocking the shelves. Even locally, our small-scale farmers and producers are finding ways to get food to their customers.
As far as I can tell, Our access to food hasn’t changed much. If you have money, food is still pretty easy to come by and if you don’t it is still a struggle. But maybe what’s changed is our anxiety about taking care of ourselves? And it might be expressing itself in this drive to plant a home garden.
I worked for years at a food pantry with a strong community gardening program. They focus on teaching home gardening skills, and on growing food to share with those using the pantry (sadly, in this crisis, they’ve had to put most of their gardening efforts on hold this season, while they focus on getting groceries to folks lined up in their parking lot). One of the things I learned quickly in that job is how unrealistic it was to think we’d grow enough food to consistently supply a food pantry.
Any farmer can tell you, growing food is hard. There are so many variables, and the learning curve can be steep. When to plant what? How much to plant, how close together? How to tend to the plants, how to protect them from extreme temperatures, from pests and disease? How to build healthy soil?
It’s unlikely that a beginning gardener will be anywhere close to food-self-sufficient, even vegetable-self-sufficient, from their home garden. At best, it will be a delightful supplement for a few weeks of the year.
But let me be clear. I don’t mean to be discouraging. Quite the opposite. I want people to grow food (anyone who wants to, that is). I am suggesting a shift in focus, or intention.
I think there are very good reasons to start a garden right now. But it’s not to meet some 'prepper' urge to supply your household or your neighborhood with the food you need to survive.
The reason to grow food now is to get your hands in soil. To move around outside with a purpose. To feel the temperature of the air on your skin and wonder how it might affect your fragile tomato seedlings.
Gardening gives us so much more than food. It connects us to something greater than ourselves. It can help take our minds off of our worries, it drops us fully into the present moment. Gardening can relieve stress and bring pleasure. It can bring joy. Observing and participating in a growth cycle can be healing and centering.
So, go. Go grow.
But not for the future. Grow for now.
Update 4/14/20: This piece in Civil Eats has me thinking more about the collective possibilities in growing food, and about the importance of food sovereignty. Listen to Leah Penniman.
*I understand that this may not continue to be the case, and that already many people have limited access to food.
Listen to the essay on this episode of Earth Eats.