Yesterday I was reading the Sunday paper (in my case the Cleveland Plain Dealer ) and their opinion section had a full page devoted to issues of food. It was, as is most writing about food these days, vacuous. There are really serious issues developing about our ability to feed the world’s population and what we get are cute little feel-good, “we just have to …” articles that smack of essays written by undergraduate journalism students … “I really don’t know anything but I have this assignment…”. Or … “I just read Michael Pollan and now here is how I will parrot back his thoughts”.
One piece (“One Way to Cope? Grow Your Own” by Rod Dreher, Dallas Morning News) was about the wisdom of addressing our food, and economic, challenges by turning to backyard gardens. The author made the point (my paraphrase) that during the Great Depression most people got a portion of their food from their own gardens and that replicating this would be a good thing in these troubled times. Now I think that everyone ought to have a backyard, or a community plot garden. I wish gardening was a strong part of our national character. And, I do think that raising even a bit of one’s own food will raise consciousness about food quality, food costs, nutrition, safety and all sorts of consumer agriculture issues. Raising a bit of one’s own food also gets people back to issues of food preparation and food preservation … important issues indeed. There is just one small problem. This is not the 1930’s.
In the 1930’s most of our citizens fell into one of three important camps. Many were agrarian or had recently moved from the country to the city. Others were just a generation removed from agrarian life and they had relatives who knew about raising crops and livestock as well as preparing and preserving food. Finally, many more of us were immigrants from countries and cultures where gardening and small animal rearing were a strong part of their culture. In fact, in the 1930’s it would have been rare to find individuals who had no knowledge of how to raise, prepare and preserve food. They may have wanted to move to a more “advanced” lifestyle where someone else did this for them but they had the knowledge or ready access to it. Jump forward to 2009.
I live in a classic suburb of a post-industrial city. Few people garden. As a matter of fact, a Realtor remarked to my wife recently that gardens violated “community standards” where the unwritten standards are chemically treated lawns maintained by a firm. In the city itself where need for food is great, few people garden. Despite an increasing amount of vacant property, there are very few community gardens in this area. Most importantly, few people have access to close friends and family members who know anything significant about gardening. The same holds true about food preparation and food preservation. Few people know much of anything about self-sufficiency. The generations who do are largely dead now. In an economically depressed area … cheap restaurants boom. Dinner at home is “take out” or “frozen from Wal-Mart”. Irrespective of the cause of this lack of knowledge, we don’t have food skills and we don’t have any people close to us who do.
I am 60. I grew up in a household where there was always a small garden. I watched a lot and helped a bit. I lived in a home where cooking and preservation was done, but preservation was the odd canning of tomatoes and relishes in the early fall. Some of our neighbors were older immigrants and they did a bit more. I saw their garlic, onions and herbs drying in their garden sheds. I drank some wine and ate a bit of processed meat. When I got married in my early 20’s I started a garden. It was a complete failure. I knew nothing it turns out. I then began a process of learning. I asked. I read a lot. I put an incredible amount of time into my gardens. Slowly it paid off. I persevered. In about 5 years I was a modest gardener and in about 10 I was very good. The same is true about food preparation and preservation. My wife came from a family of good cooks (mine were so-so) but she knew only a little of preservation. Together we tried and learned. This too took a long while.
As a society, we are, I am afraid, ill prepared to address our current challenges with a simplistic directive to “go garden”. Without some close support or a will to learn by failures until it turns out right, most will try once, poorly, and give up. Where are the family and friend support groups? And, “No”, ag extension services are not sufficient to the task (all be it staffed by good and willing people). They cannot replace advice from your mother or father or other close relative.They won’t be there to dig alongside you. Master-Gardner programs cannot scale up and one does not make up for five years of practice with a six-weekend course. And food preparation and food production … where is the help there? Rachel Ray? The Food Network? Maybe TV and TV stars work to generate enthusiasm to try but what counts is practice, practice and practice … and having to eat your failures. This takes time and resiliency … and a good stomach to keep the failures down.
What we do need are strong community-based efforts to help people get started and to learn. We need to mobilize older people who have this knowledge and bring them together with younger people who want it. We need massive community gardens. We need to have community policy statements that encourage these activities. We need to tear down policies that promote sterile land use and chemical poisons. We need to tolerate a bit more risk … like tolerating hens in back yards and learning how to safely air-dry meats. We need to think about how we quickly ramp up to make ourselves a bit more knowledgeable and self-sufficient with our food stream.
I am not simply pessimistic but I am not analytically optimistic that this will happen. I watch the people around me and they seem utterly incapable of self-sufficient actions and either offended or depressed at the idea of learning to be self-sufficient. Heck … even the farmers that I know, only know how to fire up the tractor and lay down a couple of hundred acres of commodity crops before they go on down to Applebees. So … where was the author of the opinion piece when it came to asking these questions? Does he garden? Does he preserve food? This is why we get better information from bloggers these days than from the commercial media.