Day Two of my Food Bank Diet Challenge (continued) — [Originally published on Monday 16 May 2011]
I have a new, deeper, embodied understanding of why public health officials and food activists want to get more fruit and vegetables into the diets of low-income people. I am really, really missing fresh fruit and vegetables on the food bank diet challenge. I am craving them.
When I agreed to “Take-the-Challenge, ” I thought about whether I could legitimately harvest the arugula and salad greens I’d planted a month ago, which are just about ready for picking. Or the marvelous rhubarb that some previous owner had planted, that is just ready for making compote, an annual family ritual that proclaims spring. I decided that these would be highly unusual additions to the diet of most food bank users. Instead, I would leave them as reminders of the types of deprivations that our poorest citizens experience in the abundances of our consumer society.
Sometimes when I give lectures about food and poverty, or in conversation, someone will ask why low-income people don’t grow their own food. I take this to mean that the questioner doesn’t really know much about gardening. Yes, it is true that I grew my own salad greens partly because it is substantially cheaper than buying someone else’s fresh, locally grown salad greens (at least once the soil is in place and in good, safe condition, and assuming the re-use of the sheet of screening that I use to keep the squirrels and cat from digging in the soil). But mostly I grow salad greens and the other things in my veggie patch for the pleasure and satisfaction it brings. This is true of almost all the backyard gardeners I know.
Growing vegetables requires a high tolerance for failure (ask any farmer). Most people who live in poverty don’t have any wiggle room for failure, in terms of finances, emotions or time. The harvest could fail for any number of reasons, from poor growing conditions (including poor soil, drought, frost, floods, and too much shade) to vermin (such as squirrels, ground hogs, cutworms, slugs) to the neighbourhood kids.
The lives of some low-income people are so stressful and chaotic that it is hard for them to think ahead a few months when maybe, with enough nurturing, some vegetables might ripen for harvest. Some low-income people aren’t even sure where they will be living in a few months. Hopelessness, despair, anxiety and other mental illness, which occur at rates about 3-4 times the general population, are not particularly conducive to nurturing plants, at least not without support—even if gardening can be therapeutic. And the bottom line, when you are at the point of using a food bank, is to find food that will fill you up and stave off hunger. We don’t eat salad greens because they fill us up. Two cups have 10 calories. Probably it takes more calories to chew and digest salad greens than they contain.
Growing one’s own food is satisfying in many ways, but it is unconscionable to suggest that it is any solution to hunger for someone living below the poverty line. Such thinking diverts us away from the real issue, poverty, and puts the blame on the victim, again.
Last week, the Life section of the Globe and Mail featured a gardening story with the sub-title “There’s a wide gap between that packet of lettuce seeds and the salad bowl.” Patti Tinholt, a presumably upper middle class mother of four young children, has tried to grow a vegetable garden in her shady north Toronto backyard for five years without success. This year she has hired a garden coach, at $75/hr. According to the newspaper report, she hopes the gardening coach will help her produce a bountiful crop so that she preserve enough of her harvest to feed the family in winter, just like her mother did.
I’m worried Patti is setting herself up for failure. It’s hard to imagine what sort of preserving Patti is thinking of doing. The photos accompanying the story feature a few pots of sun-starved, bedraggled herbs and a narrow raised bed of soil. This little plot isn’t capable of growing enough vegetables to feed four kids through the winter and those herbs aren’t going to preserve very well. I worry that some of us are taking an obsession with fresh, local, home-grown food a little too far. But perhaps in the process we will gain a new appreciation of how much knowledge and work is involved in growing food.