A Call To Farms – Why America Needs A New Victory Garden Movement


WWII-era U.S. War Garden poster

Victory gardens, also called war gardens or food gardens for defense, accounted for the production of nearly 40 percent of the nation’s produce at its peak in 1943.  Vegetable, fruit and herb gardens were planted at private residences and public parks in United States, United Kingdom, Canada and Germany during World War I and World War II to reduce the pressure on the public food supply and build morale. The U.S. government considered this effort a matter of national security. So, what has changed in the past 50 plus years?

Today, home and community gardeners grow only a fraction of what our parents and grandparents grew during the War. Meanwhile, agribusiness has grown out of control. Monsanto, who holds patents on about 80% of all genetically modified seeds, sues small farmers when their fields are contaminated with the patented seed. (see Rodney Nelson’s family farm) Monsanto spent almost $9 million lobbying Washington lawmakers during 2009, an off-election year for national politics.

The U.S. government gives millions of dollars every year, in the form of farm subsidies, to multinational conglomerates who grow monoculture crops like corn. Most of this corn is not even edible and is used solely to make high fructose corn syrup and fillers for highly processed, low ANDI scoring foods. These government subsidies make foods with high sugar content very cheap, according Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University and author of Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, referring to the most prevalent sweetener: high fructose corn syrup, which sweetens most soda pop while upping the calories. (Read a PBS interview with Nestle.)

The politics of food has become a global phenomenon, with nations like China purchasing hundreds of thousands of acres of Brazilian farmland to feed its growing population. Food prices have soared around the world in recent years pushing many impoverished peoples to the brink of starvation. While most of us in the U.S. have been spared this type of shock, nearly all of us have felt the squeeze on our food budgets. If this trend is to be reversed, a different system of food production is needed.

What we need is a brand new Victory Garden Movement.

National Security Is Food Security

Victory gardens were planted in backyards and on apartment-building rooftops, all in support of the war effort to protect our national security. Vacant lots were actually “commandeered for the war effort” and were utilized to grow whatever was needed. During World War II, sections of lawn were publicly plowed for plots in Hyde Park, London to publicize the movement. In New York City, the lawns around vacant “Riverside” were devoted to victory gardens, as were portions of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.

Today however, we are facing a new threat – not only to our national security, but to our food security. In 1870, 70-80 percent of the US population was employed in agriculture. As of 2008, that number has dwindled to approximately 2-3 percent of the population.

The cultural heritage of growing of food has been systematically hijacked from the American people over the past 60 years. In response to this shift, the urban farming movement in the U.S. and around the world has taken off. This movement is the result of many factors, food security being only one of them.

A distributed system is a resilient system. DARPA (the project that ultimately resulted in the creation of the Internet) was originally created in response to the Soviet launching of Sputnik during 1957, with the mission of keeping U.S. military technology ahead of the Soviets. The World Wide Web therefore was designed not from a small number of large supercomputers, which would be vulnerable to attack, but a distributed model with thousands of servers located all over the United States.

Urban farms, community and backyard vegetable gardens, represent this same systems model. By having tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of small urban farms located in communities all over the U.S., we can be resilient and practice sustainable agriculture on a small scale. Price spikes will be cushioned by those who, not only grow their own food, but share, barter, trade and sell to one another.

Corrine Asturias' front yard vegetable garden produces an overabundance and shares the surplus with her neighbors.

Community

The intrinsic nature of farming in an urban or suburban setting creates opportunities for community interaction. When one family replaces their front lawn with a series of raised beds, it has a ripple effect. People peer over their neighbors’ fences and are intrigued. Some even get inspired and start their own vegetable gardens or mini urban farms.

These interactions are only the beginning of the benefits to the community. For example, the Marin Open Garden Project encourages backyard gardeners to bring the excess from your garden to exchange with other gardeners every Saturday in San Anselmo.

Jobs

Urban farming offers the promise of safe jobs that are local and sustainable to the millions of unemployed. Many of them are struggling to pay their mortgages and feel trapped to look for work within commute distance. Putting people back to work in urban farming jobs could be a boon to our economy and put millions of Americans back to work – work that is necessary, healthy and safe.

Unlike conventional large-scale farming, organic urban farming is small scale (even micro-scale), uses no heavy equipment, toxic pesticides or herbicides. Conventional agriculture is among the most hazardous of industries. Farmers are at high risk for fatal and nonfatal injuries, work-related lung diseases, noise-induced hearing loss, skin diseases, and certain cancers associated with chemical use. Farming is one of the few industries in which the families are also at risk for injuries, illness, and death.

Sustainability

Growing food close to where it will be prepared and consumed exemplifies the path to sustainability. The savings in fuel from not having to transport food from long distances is a compelling reason alone. Add to that, the energy needed to refrigerate and store perishables, and we’re talking significant reductions in carbon emissions.

Nutrition

Produce begins to loose nutritional value immediately after harvest. When food is grown close to home, the time between harvest and consumption is often reduced to mere hours rather than days or weeks. This maximizes the nutritional benefit.

There is also an unquantifiable value to growing your own vegetables or knowing the people who do. You feel connected to your community in a real way and often wind up eating a more healthy diet, while wasting less of this precious resource.

“I probably spend as much time working in my garden each day as I spend making coffee only it is a lot more interesting”, said Corrine Asturias about her front yard vegetable garden that used to be a dry, eye-sore of a front lawn.

Physical Activity

The modern lifestyle is one of convenience and reduced physical effort.

Our forefathers were far more physical than the average American is today. Thomas Jefferson, for one, worked long hours on his own personal farm at Monticello and considered himself to be “a man of the land”. He was an avid farmer and is considered to be one of America’s early agronomists.

Vegetable gardening and urban farming is a wonderful way for people of all ages and abilities to get daily exercise, sunshine and fresh air. Modern growing techniques allow us to grow far more produce in a smaller space and with much less effort than before.

People of all ages and backgrounds can benefit from just a short time spent in the garden. “I probably spend as much time working in my garden each day as I spend making coffee only it is a lot more interesting”, said Corrine Asturias about her front yard vegetable garden that used to be a dry, eye-sore of a front lawn.

Flint River Farm in Flint, Michigan, the city’s largest urban farm.

Conclusion

The Dowling Community Garden in Minneapolis, Minnesota is the last vestige of the original Victory Gardens from World War II.

Fortunately, there is a sea change on the horizon. Places like Flint, Michigan and Detroit are experiencing a Renaissance in the urban farming movement.  Michelle Obama’s digging up the front lawn of the White House to plant a Victory Garden of her own is reminiscent of Eleanor Roosevelt’s own Victory Garden as first lady.

Our nation is ready for a new approach to growing our own food. History is again our great teacher, as we rediscover the ways our ancestors worked the land, sustainably and for the betterment of society.

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“The farmers believe that by taking care of the soil, they are taking care of the entire bio-system. Their beliefs and sustainable approaches to agriculture benefit their communities in many positive ways. Café Mam farmers seek to conserve and rebuild the natural environment and work toward a higher quality of life for their families.”

The growers that supply the beans belong to a collective. The collective is organized according to egalitarian democratic ideals that emphasize hard work, responsibility, and high standards. The cooperative’s programs provide countless benefits to outlying native communities.

Over the past 30 years coffee grown from sun tolerant trees has been the norm. However, the mono-cropping methods used depletes soil and has a negative impact on the environment. Conversely, shade grown varieties support biodiversity and house up to two-thirds of the bird species found in natural forests in the same geographic areas.

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Indigenous Cultures Rediscover Sustainable Farming Practices


In writing “Hope’s Edge“, Frances Moore Lappé and Anne Lappé traveled to India, Bangladesh, Brasil, Poland, England, France, and the California Bay Area to look at the different ways food is grown and distributed. What they discovered about the systems of food production in places like Belo Horizonte, Brasil and Andhra Pradesh, India are inspiring and surprising.

“Hunger is caused by a scarcity of democracy, not a scarcity of food.”

– Diet For A Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé

What is Belo Horizonte doing that every city in the world should do? They took the challenge of poverty and hunger that was afflicting their city head on.

Belo Horizonte, Brasil - Population 5.4 million

In so doing, they realized that access to nutritious, healthy food was a basic right and, as a group of elected officials, they had a responsibility to the people of Belo Horizonte to make sure the market worked for them, in providing access to healthy, local and organic food. Out of this realization, a strong social movement to transform their food system took hold.

Seven years after this shift in consciousness, dozens of innovative projects emerged.  They looked at where government money was being spent and where new initiatives could better serve the people.

One of the projects that came out of this initiative was a fresh look at how the school food program was being run.

Belo Horizonte’s School Lunch Program Goes Sustainable

The City realized that they were spending significant amounts of money to purchase government processed food that was not very nutritious and needed to be trucked in from long distances. They said why don’t we support our local farms and in doing so, provide local, organic produce that is nutritious and supports local, organic farmers. The goals were to;

  • Supply healthier food to children
  • Support local organic farmers
  • Support regional economy
  • Become more self-reliant

Fast food companies were advertising in schools in an effort to influence the buying habits of young children. So, they launched a public education program to inform and educate children on what foods are healthy and nutritious.

The Results Speak For Themselves

After 7 years and spending 1% of the city’s budget (equivalent to 1 penny per person per day), they have dramatically improved basic childhood health indicators. The result has been decreased hunger overall and has lowered child mortality rates by 60% in the span of only 10 years.

Deccan Plateau, in Andhra Pradesh, India

Even in New York, food deserts do exist. New York City has just launched ‘Green Carts‘ to mitigate this urban phenomena. Small carts are filled with fresh produce and delivered into areas where access to fresh fruits and vegetables is non-existent.

The Thinking Around ‘Food Scarcity’ Needs To Change

People often cite that those most in need cannot concern themselves with eating local organic foods when they are faced with just putting food on the table. The claim has been that the organic food movement has been elitist and ruled by the ‘global north’.

Ms. Lappé counters by saying that what is elitist, is the current food production model because it excludes the many to favor the few. The global north is not where the only shifts are taking place in the effort to regain our agricultural heritage. Some of the poorest regions in the world are showing that a return to indigenous farming practices are yielding impressive results.

Leaders in Global Sustainable Farming Movement

The women living in villages of the Deccan Plateau, in Andhra Pradesh, India are becoming leaders in the “global movement” toward sustainable agricultural practices. They have rejected the disaster resulting from local farmers growing GM (genetically modified) seeds supplied to them from Monsanto. GM seeds need to be purchased from Monsanto after each harvest often causing the farmers to go in debt. Using non-regenerative seeds them has only brought devastating crop failures, resulting in farmers that are committing suicide at an alarming rate.

The local farmers are now going back to the indigenous practices of their ancestors, by teaching each other the ritual of seed sharing, diverse cropping methods and creating their own safety nets for their village in times of drought. They are even filming this whole process and sharing it with the world.

Balwadi grain contribution

One village seed-keeper showed samples of the 25-30 varieties of seeds (no wheat or rice) that she cares for and grows on about one hectare of land. The basic staple crops are a diversity of millets and sorghums. Millet seeds are tiny, but they do well in the dry Deccan plateau.  All had their value for both food and cattle fodder and together provided a balanced diet. As a seed-keeper, she does not own the seeds, and others in the village ‘borrow’ seeds from her, returning 1.5 to 2 times the quantity of seeds borrowed after harvest. Thus, the village stock of seeds grows and diversifies.

People in this region are some of the poorest in the world and they are in leadership roles within the sustainable food movement. The key is rebuilding food production systems that are not reliant upon synthetic fertilizers, which use huge amounts of fossil fuels and natural gas to produce. Changing to a more sustainable system of growing crops will reduce the impact to the poorest regions of the world, that are most affected by climate change.

Farming in Ethiopia Undergoes Ground Breaking Shift

Women of the Deccan Plateau, India filming indigenous seed-saving practices

Small-scale farmers in Ethiopia are also turning back to the native crops that are indigenous to the region. Historically, these indigenous plants have survived countless droughts while providing subsistence farmers a reliable livelihood.

The sustainable practices in the most drought prone regions in Ethiopia are having dramatic increases on crop yields using techniques that are affordable and safe. These farmers can’t afford to buy seeds that will put them in debt. Organic and sustainable farming practices mean the farmers are not reliant on chemical fertilizers, which are costly and deplete the soil of their organic matter over time.

Plant Resilience Means Human Resilience

When people begin to have the capacity to feed themselves from the land, to not be in debt to the corporations and to do it in a sustainable way, they build confidence in themselves.  Then, with this new-found self-reliance, they begin to experiment with crops, well-suited to their particular soil and weather pattern. They begin to break away from the dogma of conventional agriculture sold to them by the Monsantos and DuPonts of the world.

To survive in the 21st century, these farming communities need to adapt to a constantly changing climate pattern due to global warming. They can do this without GMOs and interference from agribusiness. Farmers that grow drought resilient crops native to their land, are themselves, becoming more resilient to an ever changing and unpredictable climate future.

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