Help Planted: How Backyard Gardeners Are Growing the Country Out Of the Pandemic

    Sometimes digging into your plot is more helpful than digging into your pocket

    America is hungry.

    At the start of this year 29.6 million people were living “in households where there was either sometimes or often not enough to eat in the last seven days,” according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey. That’s up from 24.9 million in the first two months of 2020.

    Food banks are filling the void, and to do so, they’re wielding a secret weapon: veggies. “We try to connect local gardens or small farms with our partner agencies — your church pantries, your community kitchens, things like that,” says says Art Graff, the food sourcing director of Manna Foodbank in Asheville, North Carolina. Manna works with more than 200 such agencies across 16 counties. “About 30 percent of our total volume will be produce. We try to have fresh produce available year round.”

    The need is acute because the economically disadvantaged already struggle with access to and affordability of fresh food, which impacts health. “Food insecurity can lead to Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and obesity,” according to Feeding America’s website. “More than half the households the Feeding America network serves have at least one member living with high blood pressure and more than one-third have a member with diabetes.”

    The federal government has supported the surge in demand with the Farmers to Families Food Box, a $4.5 billion program launched in May that helps pay for food distribution. Specifically, the fed pays cash to big distributors, who fill food boxes and get them to pick-up points like church pantries. The funding, intended to run through 2020, was tapped out in early December, and while the program was renewed in late January, the gap left many food banks and other nonprofits in the distribution chain depleted.

    Some places, such as the Marysville Community Food Bank in Washington, carried on even as the money ran out. “We have been very fortunate with the government food-funding sources and our community has been amazing,” says Amy Howell, the food bank’s assistant director. “We heard of other local food banks running out of food but we have been really lucky that we have enough food to service our clients.”

    Those clients are coming in droves: 600 families a week, an amount that Howell says is close to twice as many as pre-COVID. Marysville, like food banks all over, has tapped into the energy of local gardeners to help fill the need for fresh, healthy food. “We have what’s called the Giving Gardens program where people can home-grow produce — that has not been sprayed — and bring it to the food bank.”

    Gardeners have turned the personal plots into food-rescue operations for those in need. (Photo: Marysville Community Food Bank)

    In Hawaii the need is particularly acute, because the islands import so much of their food from the mainland. “Items that normally take 4-to-6 weeks to get to Hawaii from distributors on the continental U.S. are taking 3-to-4 months to arrive. Inventories across the supply chain are low, delayed or bottlenecked. This is one of the main reasons we have increased local purchasing,” says Ron Mizutani, Hawaii Foodbank’s president and CEO.

    Feeding America, a nationwide network of more than 200 food banks, estimates that 159,040 people in Hawaii face hunger. That’s one in nine islanders, or one in five children, depending on how you look at it. In Honolulu a network of community gardens sprouted in December to help address the state’s food insecurity. The Honolulu Department of Community Services created the urban gardens at seven city-owned housing locations and planted more than 160 garden beds, including fruit trees.

    “This will provide nearly 1,100 residents at these sites with an opportunity to not only become more resilient, but to also help sustain their bodies and souls by growing their own food,” Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell said in a statement. “While it is important for us to always look for new park community garden locations, there is also opportunity to explore this community garden model in other diverse property locations to help create a more locally empowered future for our island.”

    Besides feeding the hungry, the Hawaii Foodbank also works to support local farms, which in the best of times are operating on extremely thin margins but were hit especially hard in the pandemic. To that end, the food bank launched a partnership with the Hawaii Farm Bureau in mid-April to buy local agricultural products. By years’ end, the food bank had purchased around $1 million in goods from 30 local farms. “We want to get our communities past this current public health crisis, but we are also looking at what happens once COVID-19 is behind us and how we can be a part of long-term sustainability of our entire Hawaii home,” Mizutani says. About a quarter of the 22 million pounds of food they have distributed during COVID has been fresh, Hawaii-grown produce.

    “Our food systems in Hawaii will emerge stronger because of this health crisis,” Mizutani says. The closer relationships forged in the collective struggle — among the food bank, its partner agencies, and the farms who supply them all — will hopefully mean a more stable future.

    Of course gardeners and farmers are essential players in the chain as well, so growing more than you need, intentionally or not, is also a great way to contribute.

    It is humbling to talk to the people on the front lines of the hunger crisis, but also inspiring. “I’ve been here about a year and a half and it’s probably one of the best jobs I’ve had in my 30-plus-year career,” says Graff. “We’re helping our neighbors in need, and that’s really the bottom line.”

    Mike DiPaolo is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in High Times and the Providence Journal.

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