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Tend Your Own Garden: Personal Food Security During the Age of COVID-19

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Tend Your Own Garden: Personal Food Security During the Age of COVID-19

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By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

I am all alone at the moment, stranded whilst traveling, thousands of miles away from my husband, and other family – although I’m lucky to have many friends nearby. We’re all locked down and we can’t see each other, but we do connect via ‘phone, frequently and often.

The news blares all COVID-19, all the time, and although I try to remain calm and level-headed. the occasional stray possible symptom – a cough, a touch of morning congestion, a sneeze – has my inner hypochondriac consulting Dr. Goggle.  I’ve learned from chats with friends and family that my behavior, while perhaps a bit alarmist, is not all that unusual. And, at least I confine my queries to my keyboard –  and don’t inflict my concerns on my nearest and dearest. Nor do I ring up my doctor or the health authorities and burden them with my angst’.

I’m focusing on eating healthy food – especially lots of fresh fruit and vegetables. I cannot go to the gym, so I’ve stocked up on on-line exercise videos. These stir childhood memories, of watching my babysitter sprawled on the floor, imitating Jack LaLanne’s antics as broadcast via our family’s black and white TV.

Food Security

On a larger level, I find myself increasingly worried about food security in the US – even though the authorities say there’s nothing to worry about. But then, they would do, wouldn’t they?

And my concern extends to the global situation, although here, I’ll limit myself to the US only.

I notice that some humungous meat processing facilities have closed, as COVID-19 has felled a critical mass of their workers at various locations, according to the Wall Street Journal, Trump Announces $19 Billion Relief Program for Farmers. Operators promise to come back on line – eventually. I’m struck with how large some of these are, and how we’ve centralized so much of our food production.

There’ve been other hiccoughs, since the supply chain for food has been optimized assuming  people eat a proportion of their meals in restaurants. Restaurants tend to serve different types of  food then people cook for themselves at home — most bacon, for example, is eaten at restaurants. And even when what’s eaten is the same, the portions sold to restaurants are different – they tend to buy much bigger quantities, cut in bigger increments, than do households. So, now, with most restaurants closed, they’re not claiming their normal orders, while at the same time, there’s more demand for the things people buy to cook at home. I imagine the problem of this mismatch  will eventually be solved, as it’s more one of allocating and distributing existing supplies, rather thansituations of outright shortages.

A bigger problem is that with so many people out of work, many have turned to food banks. Food banks are facing huge spikes in demand at the same time that they are receiving less supplies. Much of what they distribute either has come from restaurants – many of which are no longer operating – or supermarkets –  many of which are selling out on popular items, and no longer have excess to send along.

Last week, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), announced a $19 billion relief program for farmers. This includes $16 billion in direct relief payments to farmers, as well as $3 billion in mass purchases of dairy, meat, and produce, to be distributed via food banks, according to the WSJ:

“This $16 billion in aid will help keep food on Americans’ tables by providing a lifeline to farm families that were already hit by trade wars and severe weather,” said Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, an industry trade group. “The plan to purchase $3 billion in meat, dairy products, fruits and vegetables will help to stabilize markets and keep farms afloat.”

USDA plans to make monthly purchases of $100 million each of fresh produce, dairy products and meat, and work with the nation’s food distributors to assemble a “preapproved box” of food for distribution at food banks and other outlets.

What Can You Do?

Okay, we can all sit back and trust the market – with the help of the government – to sort this problem out.

Yes.

We could do that.

But, is there anything else individuals can do?

I grew up in New Jersey’s northernmost county, Sussex, at a time when there were still lots of small farms there. My mother always had garden, and my first job – other than babysitting -was as a laborer on a local tomato farm – first picking tomatoes, then sorting them for sale locally or to be sent to New York City.

Some local  farmers raised meat. We had seven people in my family – parents and five children – and my mother would sometimes but sides of livestock certified by the local veterinarian as what we would now call sustainably raised. My parents kept chickens – which, alas, occasionally found their way into the neighbor’s pool – making us a very popular family.

Other farmers raised dairy cattle – including the family of my best friend from middle school. We lived near state game land, and during hunting season, we weren’t allowed to play outside – as well-tanked hunters from the City, out for a day’s hunting – ran wild. Better they plugged Bessie than each other or a local child – which, alas, they all too often did, and not infrequently either.

Nearby there were a couple of local orchards, Orchard Crest and Windy Brow,  which grew apples such as my favourite, Stayman Winesap, and peaches – especially the white varieties: so good for eating, but with too delicate a flavour for cooking, although last summer, I found an interesting recipe for white peach and basil freezer jam. And nearby, there were also thickets of raspberries or blackberries, wild strawberries too, some on the state game land, others in little byways that no one else seemed either to know about or bother with.

Haven’t been back to my childhood stomping grounds for years, ever since my parents moved to North Carolina, but when I was last in this part of NJ., I noticed that most of the unkempt acreage had been mowed, and divided, into large household plots. The location was, I like to say, about 60 miles and 60 years distant from New York City, and I guess it was inevitable that the small towns such as the one I grew up in would eventually become bedroom communities, crowded with individual homesteads, the trees chopped down, the thickets gone, now replaced with all-American lawns

Growing up in a place where we typically grew at least some of our own food and where food was produced all around us, we enjoyed a certain amount of  food security. I’ve lost that – even though my pantry is typically well-stocked with staples. In my Brooklyn home, all I now I plant is herbs. I’ve not been more ambitious than that – except for the couple of summers when my father was dying, and I spent lots of time with parents, cooking for them. Then, I planted a big kitchen garden, and a couple of dozen varieties of herbs.

My Mom still typically plants a kitchen garden stocking it with plants she buys from the Piedmont Triad Farmers Market. But she’s locked down and not visiting the farmers market now – although their website says it remains open . My musings on food security prompted me to ring up a local garden center near where my Mom lives. I had them deliver her some vegetable and herb plants: tomatoes – Jersey beefsteak, heirloom, cherry –  peppers, zucchini, summer squash, spinach, cauliflower, broccoli,  basil, and parsley. I also selected some blueberry bushes. They’re unlikely to fruit this season, but there;’s always next year. And  a hanging basket to brighten up her Easter weekend.

(I mention here that I know there are various local restrictions throughout the US on opening of  garden centers. Those in NC remain open – and I didn’t have to look hard to find one that delivers. I checked out one I happen to know on Long Island, and that too isopen – and one can preorder plants and pick them up. California nurseries are also open. I suppose one could have a debate over whether vegetable plants comprise essential services – I think yes, particularly if one can pick out plants and have them delivered. The produce may be eaten throughout the growing season, and prevents having to make future grocery runs.)

The plantman delivered the plants to Mom – and they were green and healthy. But he made some mistakes – and forgot the blueberries! I called him up, and asked him to deliver what was missing.  He graciously agreed  to make another delivery and I ordered some extra plants. His omission was an honest mistake and his margins no doubt are small, so I wanted to make it worth his while to deliver the remainder of the order.

Plus, I have a sister who lives with her family near my Mom, and as the quality of the plants was so high – and the price reasonable – I ordered a passel for her as well.I know that each year, they usually plant at least some tomatoes and herbs. My selection for her overlaps with what I sent to Mom, tweaked somewhat to their different tastes: Barb’s also includes eggplants, cilantro, some hot peppers. I’m curious as to whether the blueberry plants will flourish that far south – although the chap at the plant nursery said they do, and he stocks the plants – which I don’t think he’d do if they struggled in that locale. Yesterday, my sister sent me some photos of the plants, now in the ground, all lined up, perky and well-watered. She told me they’d already eaten some of the herbs.

What’s the upshot here?

If I’m worrying for naught about unstable supply chains, my gifts of plants still bring benefits beyond mere goodwill. My Mom – a very social person -is climbing the walls at being alone and locked down. Putting in a bigger kitchen garden gives her something more to do with her time.

She, my sister, and her family will be eating more fresh, home-grown vegetables this summer. And they won’t have to leave the house to hit the local grocery store  or farmers market- thus enabling them to practice their social distancing. Nor is any fossil fuel wasted putting produce on the table  – either in trucking vegetables to the supermarket, or in jumping in the car to make a grocery run. One other benefit: decentralizing food production. What could be more local than your own backyard?

Now, if we could promote more home Victory Gardens, we would somewhat reduce the vice grip of agribusiness. I have no idea what types of agricultural practices my Mom, sister, and her family typically employ. Nor do I want to intrude. Yet even if they don’t practice the type of cultivation that would satisfy organic purists, I am sure their small-scale, local vegetable plots are better for the environment than massive factory farms. I know, for example, they don’t use any glyphosate.

Reading the comments threads I’ve learned that the Naked Capitalism community includes many avid gardeners: people whose food security strategies put my meager efforts to shame. So I ask you, dear readers, to pipe up in comments. What are you doing to increase your food security?

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