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Food for thought

December 24, 2009

We all have to eat. We all know that fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains are best for us. But not everyone can afford them. Or can they?

We can all have fresh food if we work hard and share. Fresh fruits & veggies do not have to be the sole purview of the rich and upper middle class.

I’ll be the first to admit that I am not too poor. If it weren’t for the boy’s steady job, though, I certainly would be. Money has been tight this month as I’m working reduced hours at the museum and my consulting job hasn’t started yet. And, of course, there were presents that had to be bought. Luckily, I come from a tradition of women who keep the pantry well-stocked. When you’ve got canned and dried goods in abundance, it’s easy to buy just a few fresh fruits and vegetables and maybe some cheap cuts of meat.

I’ve been making a lot of soups lately, and soup bones (smoked ham hocks, smoked turkey legs, beef neck bones) are pretty darn cheap (ranging from $1.50-$3 per package) and can make a whole heckuva lot of soup. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again – buying seasonally helps, too. As does not being an overly picky eater.

The reason why I’m writing about this is that the more I read about the sustainable food movement, the more I notice and realize what a positive impact gardens and farms are having on poor, underprivileged, and often overlooked or even demonized members of society. Gardens, even small ones, can make the difference between eating and not eating. Gardens and farms and being outdoors working with the soil can help calm and heal and ground people on the edge, regardless of their age, sex, race, or social station.

First, I read about prison farms. Yes, prison farms. Reading this article on Grist and listening to this podcast about the closure of Canadian prison farms was both sad and heartening. These farms employ low-risk inmates and provide food (and sometimes meat and dairy products) for the prison. Then I found this article on prison farms donating fresh produce to local food pantries.

Then there’s this article from the NY Times about New Jersey veterans who started a vegetable garden at their VA and use gardening as therapy. The produce they grow is used for other VA patients and in the VA cafe. And here, from the Christian Science Monitor, is an article about a college program that teaches the unemployed how to garden and provide fresh food for themselves.

This shows me what a positive impact access to fresh food, the outdoors, and food security can do for all people.

Sustainable agriculture is a “trend” that I don’t think is going to go away any time soon. Particularly in a bad economy that probably isn’t going to get better any time soon. And a “trend” that deals with something as pure and honest as fresh, homegrown food? Why, that’s something everyone can (or should) get on board with.

People talk a lot about movements that won’t stick unless they start from the ground-up. As Grist describes on its look back on the decade, ten years ago the local and organic food movement was in the hands of an elite (and wealthy) few. But today? The movement has moved down the food chain, having the most strength with the poor, the lower-middle class, the young, and those on the margins of society. Thanks to CSAs, community gardens, farmers’ markets, small grocery stores buying from local farmers, rooftop gardens, hobby farmers, and even the White House (not to mention ordinary back yards), more and more people are getting involved in gardening and farming for their own food.

As a young person myself (and not a particularly wealthy one), I too have been wanting to garden. But I also feel the pain of impossibly busy working people who can’t ever seem to find the time. But as the college gardening program article states, a well-planned and planted garden takes only about an hour of work per week during the growing season, with a little more during the harvest season. Being in an apartment with no balcony and little window space makes even container gardening hard for me. My one basil plant is still spindly and sickly looking with small leaves. I think I’m better off leaving most of the watering and sunshine to mother nature. : ) But that will have to wait until we find a place with a yard, I’m afraid. Especially since there are no community gardens nearby. Luckily, I live in an area full of orchards, farm markets, and grocery stores that buy local.

The one benefit of this resurgence in gardening and farming is going to have an unexpected benefit, I think. Yes, people will connect with the soil and understand where their food comes from and eat more vegetables and have access to fresh food and feel pride in growing things. But farming and gardening take planning. You have to plan when and what to plant and where to plant it. If you are serious about having food nearly year-round, you have to stagger your plantings and put up hoop houses in the fall and plant for the spring and start seeds and seedlings in the spring and know when your first and last frost dates are. There’s integrated pest management and knowing what plants need how much compost and what kind (acid or basic? loam, sand, or clay soil?) and what plants need how much water. There’s crop rotation and soil management (the non-chemical kind) and planning at least a year ahead.

The benefit of this? Understanding that some things are complex and that they take long-range planning.  That some problems take complex, integrated solutions. That patience, research, risk, hard work, and investment are necessary for any worthy endeavor. That if you take the time and do real work, you’ll get something truly amazing. And delicious!

We’ve still got a long way to go. Legislation still almost exclusively supports big agribusiness and large-scale factory farming. Subsidies are not available for sustainable ag. Economy of scale is still the main driving force behind the vast majority of all businesses. And economy of scale does not support small, localized production. Small local and regional processing plants are increasingly going under or being bought out by larger ones. School lunch programs still operate with minimal funds and are forced to use the unsellable leavings of big meat and ag companies to feed our nation’s children. The food industry roots of obesity are ignored in the newest healthcare bill and obesity is still stigmatized as the sole fault of the obese, instead of looking at the real origins of modern obesity.

There’s still a lot to work on, but that’s not a cause for pessimism, cynicism, and despair. We’ve come a long way, despite the hardships of the past few years. The years to come are going to be hard too, but will hopefully get better. After all, fresh fruit and veggies always make things better! : )

So in the spirit of Christmas and a new year, don’t get discouraged – have hope, real hope, that the future can hold good things. Happy Holidays, happy cooking, and happy eating!

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