It seems pretty simple. Having a hard time eating? “Grow your own food!”, they say. “They” are usually well meaning and coming from a place of only good intentions, otherwise I’d be whipping out my, “Honey, you better check your privilege!” speech. Which I guess is what I’m doing right now but I want to try to do it gently, in more of a pointing things out kind of way and not the tongue lashing kind of way. People living below the poverty line often feel that the ,”YES, you CAN grow your own food!” sentiment is just another way some people make poor people feel bad about being poor and blame them for not doing more to help themselves.
Growing your own food is undeniably one of the best ways to get fresh, nutritious food economically , and bonus points- ethically & eco-friendly. When someone suggests that a person struggling with food security just simply grow their own food, they’re making the following assumptions:
- The person has access to land,space , and the soil it takes to grow food
- They are able bodied.
- They have time to devote to a garden.
- They have a budget to acquire seeds & supplies for starting a garden.
- They know how to do it.
Digging deeper (that pun was not intended but it does seem like I didn’t try to hard to avoid it), I want to talk about each assumption separately.
Land & Space To Grow Food
Americans who live in urban areas are more likely to live in poverty than those who don’t live in the city.217 million people receiving food stamps live in urban areas compared to about 62 million in rural areas. Typically, the economically disadvantaged neighborhoods are not the greenest places on earth, which contributes to the food desert clime. In urban areas, the best places for growing food would be balconies,window boxes, fire escapes and rooftops. Not everyone has access to those spaces. If they do have an area they can claim as their own, they may have to consider getting permission from the building owner (who unfortunately, more often than not, is going to give the idea a thumbs down) . Is their hard work only going to be vandalized or destroyed? Is it practical?
I’m an avid gardener but I haven’t always been able to garden, even in rural small town America. I once lived in an apartment building that had a beautiful yard that I saw as potential edible gardens. The owners did not and tenants were only permitted to have small flower pots on the outside stoop. In the house we rent now, our Grey Gardens is A LOT of work for low yield. I’m mainly able to grow all herbs,greens and a few veggies but it’s not nearly enough to put a dent in the food needs of my 7 person family.
Community gardens and CSA co-ops are an excellent solution to this problem but as Novella Carpenter’s experience with her Ghost town Farm ,and other city farmers like the people of LA who founded The Garden can tell us, space in the city is coveted and premium. Meaning, to create sustainable food sources in food deserts, communities need to raise money to own a space to call their own or a benevolent property owner will have to see a reason to give a gift of land to the community.
There’s a strong connection between being a disabled American and being impoverished. Roughly 30% of all disabled people fall below the poverty line. Disabilities is a broad term but a fair amount are physical and even disabilities not considered a physical disability could inhibit someone’s ability to garden.
Under this category, I would also include elderly people…and sadly, the statistics for the number of elderly living in poverty isn’t so great these days.
It isn’t impossible to garden with disabilities or once you reach old age but there are limitations and accessibility issues. Raised garden beds that are wheelchair accessible are a fantastic solution. Community organizations could help fill the need by contributing supplies and assisting with labor.
A common misconception is that poor people don’t work, especially people who receive assistance like SNAP. For example,30% of food stamp recipients are employed full time .This isn’t a reflection of all people in poverty, since many do not seek assistance or make just barely over the qualifying limit but still live below the line. Some work part time and are full time students.It isn’t uncommon for a family living below the poverty line to be a two income household or a single parent household working 2 jobs. Underemployment is just as dangerous a place as being unemployed entirely. Time and energy are already being spent on working and/or raising a family in many cases.Gardening? ”Ain’t nobody got time for that”.
There’s a popular homesteading page on Facebook that promotes growing your own food as a way to solve your economic hardships. After several posts with the “Poor people should just grow their own food!”, I felt the need to raise some questions, starting with ,”How?”. The response was a very simplistic: People who get food stamps can use their EBT to buy seeds!
Oh. Problem solved!
Except… if a person on food stamps is buying enough seeds to actually provide fully for their family, that’s a huge dent in their food stamp allowance. Many people are not going to be able to put off food they can eat now for seeds. Many food budget decisions are short term when you’re poor because that’s the way it has to be. The creation more of seed banks and seed exchanges would benefit poor gardeners a lot more than their EBT card.
You can’t buy topsoil or potting soil with food stamps. You can’t buy garden tools with food stamps.
If the person has to resort to indoor gardening, EBT isn’t going to buy grow lights. Planting containers… nope, not those either.
It’s fantastic that the USDA allows people to use their EBT to buy seeds but to help people be self-sufficient food providers, there has to be incentives and programs that offset start-up costs for gardening. Teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime. But you still have to give him a fishing pole.
Some people don’t know the first thing about growing food. That’s not just a poor people thing. There’s a gap in our American modern culture that has a huge disconnect with where our food comes from ,and with nature in general. The bright spot in this deficit is the huge upswing of food education and ag-curriculum programs in schools. My children’s schools all have some type of food education and gardening program. These programs need to be in every school, not just for the gardening knowledge but for the nutrition education. It takes work,parental involvement and community support but it can happen.
The nice benefit that comes from community gardens is that the organizers pass on their knowledge to any adult interested and willing to learn and do the work. Peer education is an incredible free learning tool.
I’m not trying to rain on everyone’s real food parade here by pointing these things out. I’m just trying to raise awareness to the complexities of growing food. It isn’t as simple as just doing it. If a person CAN do it, then I am their loudest cheerleader. I’m just saying, not everyone can, so let’s just stop with the sentiment that says they can. If they really can and want to, everything should be done to cheer them on. If they can’t, so be it. Don’t keep preaching. It doesn’t help. Grow some extra food in your garden and donate it directly to a family or a local food pantry . That would be an excellent way to help.
Communities everywhere should facilitate and encourage gardening and community supported agriculture to solve their local hunger and food security problem. I have asserted time and time again that we already CAN feed every single human being with the food that is wasted in the U.S. . Politics prevents this from happening. With that in mind , it might seem like gardening is a moot point. If there’s already enough food ,why not just focus on managing that correctly and putting it in the people’s mouths? Why garden at all? The great thing that community and home gardens would accomplish is an end to dependency on corporations that grow and distribute the not-so-great food that’s in our system. Bringing food back into local communities and putting the power into people’s hands is best for everyone but everyone needs to work to make this happen. Poverty and food insecurity isn’t going to be eradicated by putting all the responsibility on the people in poverty. Becoming self-sufficient is a huge privilege and the obstacles to achieving it need to be kicked aside by those who already have the possibility of that privilege .
THINGS I MISSED: Additional talking points that I forgot or weren’t aware of
To see all I’ve ever said here about hunger,food insecurity ,poverty, and living on food stamps, go here.
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