The Moment for Food Sovereignty is Now

From panic planting to cooperative gardens, farmers focused on equity and food justice know that ‘if you can feed yourself, you can free yourself.’



Last weekend, Kristin Davey received an unexpected shock upon entering her local nursery in Sebastopol, California, north of San Francisco. “The shelves were picked over. The vegetable starts were almost gone. And the seed racks were completely bare,” she said, “I’ve been going to nurseries for 15 years and I have never seen them so empty.”

Davey went home empty-handed that day, and she is far from alone. Just as panic buying is emptying grocery shelves around the country, “panic planting” has overrun nurseries and seed companies alike as people flock to stock up on seeds and seedlings to grow food at home. Nurseries, which are considered essential businesses in some states, are scrambling to keep up with demand, and some have begun to offer curbside pickup and delivery to respect social distancing guidelines.

Seed companies are also inundated. Late last month, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds closed their website to catch up on a record number of orders, while Johnny’s Seed Company co-CEO Gretchen Kruysman reported that the company has seen a 300 percent increase in orders since early March.

“If you could see our graph of orders as a stairway to heaven right now, it’s going straight up,” Kruysman told Civil Eats. “We’ve never seen this happen before.”

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On March 31, Johnny’s Seed Company announced they were halting sales to consumers for a week, focusing on sales to commercial growers while they catch up on a backlog of home garden orders from across North America.

As coronavirus keeps millions of Americans at home, anxiety and foresight are driving people to start or expand gardens as a real means to feed themselves. We may be on the verge of a resurgence of World War II-style “Victory Gardens.”

“People are thinking, ‘If I can’t get toilet paper, am I going to be able to get food?’” said Rose Hayden-Smith, a longtime community gardener and a Victory Garden historian, who recently retired from the University of California.

But many now have a steep learning curve ahead of them. For example, when Oregon State University (OSU) opened up their online Master Gardening series to the public in mid-March, the demand was unprecedented. Lindsey Shirley, the associate director of OSU’s extension service, said that more than 13,000 people signed up to take the course—compared to 105 people in 2019.

For this reason, many gardeners are also beginning to see food production as a collective effort—and one that has the potential to respond to historical inequities and re-frame yesterday’s Victory Garden in the vein of today’s food justice movements.

“People are trying to take responsibility and action to ensure their own health and well-being in the uncertainty in the future,” said Nate Kleinman, the founder of the Experimental Farm Network (EFN). But, he added, that will only truly work if they work for the health of their community as well.

Beyond the Victory Garden

Historic poster from World War I saying 'Sow the seeds of victory!'Many have pointed to this new demand as a revival of the Victory Garden, which became popular during the two World Wars of the last century. Hayden-Smith noted that the idea of home gardening as a way to help the country shift its resources dates back to the economic depression known as the Panic of 1893, and really took off during World War I, when the U.S. mobilized millions of soldiers—largely drawn from the ranks of farm families. Everyone else was asked to ration food and grow a garden to fill in the gaps.

Hayden-Smith notes that, despite the fact that the coronavirus pandemic came on much more suddenly than either World War, individuals and communities are once again turning to gardening to create food security.

But Kleinman, and others, take issue with the use of the term “Victory Garden.” They point to the fact that part of the gap these gardens were intended to fill during World War II actually came about after many Japanese Americans farmers were forced off their land and put in concentration camps.

Yet, the practices of community gardening and farming has also long been an important key to survival and independence for marginalized folks.

“We have always seen, and continue to see, food sovereignty as linked to freedom for people,” said Leah Penniman, co-founder of Soul Fire Farm and author of Farming While Black. “If you don’t have any control over your food system,” Penniman stressed, “it essentially puts you at the whim of a racist, capitalist food system in terms of your basic survival needs.”

“Mama Fannie Lou Hamer said, ‘If you have 400 quarts of greens and gumbo soup put away for the winter, no one can push you around or tell you what to say or do,’” said Penniman. “And that was huge during the civil rights movement.”

Leah Penniman photo courtesy of Chelsea Green. (Photo © Jamel Mosely)

Leah Penniman photo courtesy of Chelsea Green. (Photo © Jamel Mosely)

But many Indigenous people and other people of color have been separated from their land, worsening systemic inequalities, such as access to fresh food, in a crisis like this one. These frontline communities are the same ones Soul Fire Farm has worked with long before the pandemic, but now they are seeing an overwhelming outpouring of interest in gaining access to home food production—primarily single parents, the elderly, refugees, people with an incarcerated loved one, and those who are living in food apartheid ZIP codes.

Soul Fire Farm hopes to help to meet the demand, ramping up their “Soul Fire in the City” program to connect city-dwellers with volunteers to install home gardens in urban areas. Usually they only install a handful of gardens per year, but as a result of the pandemic, they’ve received 50 requests already this year.

“As people see these supply chains crumble, and grocery stores empty, the importance of hyper-locality is being underscored,” said Penniman. “But I know that we will meet the need—we will make sure they all get gardens.” To reach even more people, Soul Fire Farm is hosting a weekly live chat, “Ask a Sistah Farmer,” to share basic gardening skills to everyone who is interested.

As with community gardens, urban home gardens can be a temporary solution to give control over food production to the people who most need it, while larger policy shifts are still needed to address systemic inequities.

“I don’t see a huge distinction, whether we’re talking about community gardens, home gardens, or school gardens—we just really need to localize our food and include more people in these relocalized food systems,” said Penniman.

She hopes that this crisis will lead to a huge food-system transformation, and that more people are able to be involved in feeding themselves, their families, and their neighbors.

“If you can feed yourself,” she says, “you can quite literally free yourself.”

Cooperative Gardens as the Way Forward

As individuals, nonprofits, and families rush to establish home gardens in the coming weeks, there’s a larger collective movement brewing to harness the momentum of the moment.

On March 18, EFN’s Kleinman created and widely shared a call to join a cooperative garden movement, supporting people to build “Corona Victory Gardens,” by matching people who need resources including seeds, clean soil, land access, or volunteer labor to those who can offer those resources.

The response was tremendous: Almost 1,000 people filled out the form in just a few days, and is now at nearly 1,500 responses. “It was kind of overwhelming. I did not expect to have so many people to come out of the woodwork so quickly,” he says. For Kleinman, who was involved in the Occupy movement, “it’s the biggest collective action I’ve seen in a very long time.”

Ben Kleinman Photo courtesy of Lela Nargi.

Nate Kleinman (Photo courtesy of Lela Nargi.)

Kleinman believes the rush to garden in community with others stems from a tangible fear that we will soon face severe food shortages in some parts of the U.S., based on these early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic—not to mention the 20 percent hike in food prices in China after COVID-19 disrupted the supply chain. From migrant workers not being able to enter the U.S. to work, to people being too scared or too sick to work, to untold closed businesses, there are a number of potential upcoming shocks to our food system.

“Millions of people around the world are thinking about growing food now,” Kleinman said. “We are starting this movement to support them. And we stand on the shoulders of the giants who’ve already been working for a movement like this for decades.”

Penniman underscores that sentiment, and points out that there have been thousands of Black and Indigenous people working tirelessly for decades, most without resources to ensure fair food for their communities. She names a long list in addition to Soul Fire Farm, including the Black Church Food Security Network, D-Town Farm, and Pauma Tribal Farms of the Payómkawichum Nation, to name just a few. She stresses the importance of supporting these groups right and ensuring that they can continue to do their work.

Kleinman quickly organized open conference calls that have been attended by hundreds of people from leading seed companies, farms, nonprofits, and food movement activists, and he anticipates ceding leadership over to them to others on the ground in various parts of the country. The loose coalition, fiscally sponsored by EFN, aims to stay extremely community-centered, focusing on the people who have needed food long before this pandemic.

“We’re clear that this movement will not be successful if we don’t center this on people of historically oppressed communities as leaders,” Kleinman said. “There are many, many leaders from those communities already and we’ll be so much stronger with them. This will take broad-based community efforts.”

They are calling the movement the “Cooperative Gardens Commission,” and they’re seeking 50 million volunteers to help bring it to life. “We are focusing on creating a movement built to last beyond the pandemic,” Kleinman said. Unlike Victory Gardens, he added, “Cooperative Gardens speaks much more to building something together, not just defeating something.”

Hayden-Smith also sees this as the start of a new movement in society. “Gardens right now are about comfort, inspiration, food security, connecting with nature, and learning a life skill that everyone should have,” she said. “But these will also be points of integration when we come out of this social isolation. Gardening is going to be a really important activity, and people are not going to let go of it.”

Looking to the future, Leah Penniman doesn’t think it will be possible to return to normal after what Americans are going through now. “I think there will only be a moving forward. This pause, I pray, is a reset button for us to realize what is actually essential and most important to our society,” she said, naming the treatment of farmers and healthcare workers in particular.

“We need to move forward informed by what we’ve learned in this crisis [about] what’s important in terms of our survival as a nation and as a species.”

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View Comments (20)

  1. Thursday, April 2nd, 2020
    We are looking at several groups organizing. I think that looking at local organizing while getting support nationally is going to.be a crucial element in improving the food system.
  2. Dana K. Gaffin: UCSC CASFS class of 2019
    Friday, April 3rd, 2020
    I hope this is the opportunity everyone is hoping for it to be. Out of it will come some fantastic Farmers and Ranchers. As mentioned, the learning curve is/will be steep. Not all that have chosen this endeavor will become Farmers and Ranchers. But the Knowledge that will be disseminated will create a network that's the equivalent of a net that covers the whole world, and the knowledge will work like a ripple in a lake that turns into a Tsunami on the other side of the world.
  3. David Bennet
    Friday, April 3rd, 2020
    Farms will actually have a surplus of food because schools and business won't need as much. We will not have a food shortage, the problem is the food chain is no longer local and people are selfish and hoarding food. Food prices went up 20% in China, but we grow more food than we need in the USA. Also 20% isn't too terrible.

    This quote is really not going to age will either...

    “If you could see our graph of orders as a stairway to heaven right now, it’s going straight up"

    Yes, just like Covid19 deaths.
  4. Saturday, April 4th, 2020
    Hi, my wife & I are both retired and live on 15 acres in rural Wise County Texas. We currently have 1/4 acre in produce, that is about all we can handle. We have talked about finding help from younger folks that are interested in learning this arguably worlds oldest trade.
    While the A&M Extension is focused on the farm-to-table end of the business they are not structured to help us set up a hands-on learning environment.
    We would be glad to offer our land, equipment and what knowledge we have gained over the eleven years that we have lived here.
    I would love to talk with someone about getting set up with a learning center here knowing full well that it will take a long term commitment on our part along with outside help getting started as well as finding volunteers.
    Your thoughts please...
    --
    Jim Duncan-
    Solar Acres Farm
    486 W.N. Woody Rd Azle Texas 76020
    817.917.0527
    solarguy2004@gmail.com
    *****************************
    • Saturday, April 4th, 2020
      I was not aware that this comment would be viewed publicly otherwise I would havr not included my # and address. Please remove this. Thanks Jim
    • Christian Sweningsen
      Monday, April 6th, 2020
      Many thanks for this valuable offer, a perfect match with this movement and eith thecreak needs of this time.
      .
      Please go to CoopGardens.org, sign up and you will be given access to the organizing calls, notes from previous calls, and the various working groups.

      That's how to get connected with the networks and - eventially - with people in to3ur area.

      There is a call tonight at 8 p.m. *Eastern*, if you get signed up you can join. The calls are very well managed and informative
  5. Sunday, April 5th, 2020
    Fantastic! Thank you.
    May Peace Prevail On Earth (MPPOE)!
    Peaceful Thoughts,
  6. Sunday, April 5th, 2020
    Hello from the west coast in Mendocino-

    Thanks for this great article- a few years back we started the victory gardens for peace initiative to create patterns other communities can use to mass implement home and community gardens. We have developed models for seed banking, education/outreach, a Garden Friendly Community Resolution which can be passed by towns, businesses, communities, neighborhoods, etc...

    And also complete diet design methodologies and examples. We currently are growing a demonstration garden which microscales the human footprint of agriculture, using minimal resources, less than 1% of the land and 2% of the water of conventional agriculture and only requires on the average 35 minutes per day.

    We are excited to share these models, especially with like-minded folks in positions to inspire. We treat our work as open source with the goal of preempting war by achieving local resilience and peace. Please contact me if we can help in any way.

    Best wishes,
    Matt and the VGFP team
  7. Sunday, April 5th, 2020
    So nice to read this! Hello from Québec. We’ll do the same thing but in french ;) I wish your garden will be full of children and vegetables. Have a nice summer!
  8. Harley Fredriksen
    Tuesday, April 7th, 2020
    Thank you for writing this article! I especially appreciate the focus on moving forward into cooperative models and shared ownership. This will be a huge plus for the stability of farms.

    I also had no idea about the displacement of Japanese farmers during the WWII Internment. Thank you for bringing attention to this.
  9. Alex Beers
    Thursday, April 9th, 2020
    Great read. This has been on my heart for awhile. What I Invision is 100% organic. Helping neighbors to get their gardens started and helping each other out....building community. Sharing. Stop buying so much stuff! Work to end so much consumerism. Recycled items as much as posibble. Instead of chasing the dollar being happy with less stuff and spending more time in community. We could branch into other areas, second hand stores, etc.
  10. michael brown
    Wednesday, April 15th, 2020
    Nice article. There is tremendous innovation happening across the global food chain, slowed down, but not stopped by COVID 19. I've been engaged with community and social farming movements for over 30 years and their influence in the food chain remains miniscule as America's healthy quality diminishes. Rather than the marginalized communities continue their noble but non influential community gardens they need to learn and be equip to innovate as the upper class does. Otherwise, 30 years from now there will be the same stories.
  11. Vivi
    Wednesday, April 22nd, 2020
    Aside from the (usually nutritionally negligible amounts of) food a new gardener can produce on a few raised beds, and the well-proven mental health benefits of gardening, another advantage may be important in these times: Putting in a food garden forces you to get out and spend some time in the sunlight every day in order to maintain it (even if it's just a daily round of watering). This will increase your body's production of vitamin D (as long as you try to wear as little skin-covering clothing as the weather allows), which most of the office-working population actually has a minor chronic insufficience of, because window glass filter out most of the UV light - and especially people of color cannot produce enough vitamin D at northern latitudes, because they aren't biologically adapted to this area and so their high-melanin skin blocks too much UV light. Muslim women have the extra problem of too much covered skin - which is why rickets in breast-fed babies is a problem for Muslim populations even in Middle-Eastern countries that in theory do get enough sunlight for the skin tone of the local population. While vitamin D deficiency so bad that kids get rickets is not generally a problem anymore in Western countries (though it was a serious problem during the industrial revolution and early 20th century, mainly due to the urban smog), there have been studies that showed that vitamin D supplements - or just going out into the sun more, without sunblocker - can significantly reduce the risk of getting respiratory infection diseases like influenza or support the body in recovering more quickly. This is a big part of the reason why "flu season" in the northern hemisphere ends right about now, when the sunlight is getting stronger again (filtered through less atmosphere, due to the tilt of the Earth) and the temperatures rise enough that people will go out with their arms and legs exposed. This immune-system-boosting effect of taking a daily dose of extra vitamin D was especially noticable in people who have chronically insufficient vitamin D levels, such as people of color or the elderly (who are often housebound, more covered by clothing and their skin gets thinner and therefore produces less vitamin D even if it's exposed). And after all, it's not like you can overdose your vitamin D levels through sun exposure. (Though given that people of color are not adapted to the lower North American / European sunlight levels, the recommendation here in Germany is that they should take extra supplements all year round, not just during the winter like everyone with light skin, who can get enough sunlight for their own production during the summer.)

    This podcast explains this all in more detail: https://elevationrecovery.com/coronavirus-and-vitamin-d3/

    (However, if you're light-skinned, do remember that the current lack of industrial activity has scrubbed the atmosphere of the usual pollution and thus increased the amount of UV light that gets through. Especially with skin still completely untanned coming out of the winter, that means that light-skinned people should beware of the sunburn / skin cancer risk and maybe not work in the direct noon-time sun. Or put on some low-level sunscreen if you're going to work outside for many hours on end.)
  12. Michal Brimm
    Wednesday, April 29th, 2020
    What a beautifully written and wise article. Corona has given us an immediate and profound opportunity to re-evaluate our relationship to the soil, the plants and the people that carry the vast weight and responsibility for healthy, vital and nutritious food.
    This article offers so much insight.
    Thank you!
  13. Laura
    Tuesday, May 5th, 2020
    I appreciate this article! ITs amazing how quickly people turned to growing their own foods!
  14. Jane Ernstzen
    Friday, May 22nd, 2020
    Really inspiring for change across the world