Dig for Victory

The victory gardens of World War II in America contributed food with a value of $1.2 billion by 1945, in the backyards of 20 million households. Victory gardens were once the answer to the question of food supply and provenance, delivered with a morale-boosting reward for labor. Publicly promoted by Eleanor Roosevelt at the White House in 1943 (she tried to plant a vegetable garden in 1941 but was discouraged by the USDA for being unpatriotic), the effort was repeated by Michelle Obama in 2009. The resurgence of the edible garden in American public life is due to the rise of locavores including Michael Pollan, who writes, “The power of cleverly designed polycultures to produce large amounts of food from little more than soil, water and sunlight has been proved… (they) can produce more food per acre than conventional monocultures, and food of a much higher nutritional value.”[i]

In America today, fresh food supplies are ubiquitous with rapidly expanding retail options. Food is found at the corner store, the big box, and the dollar store. The rarest spices, the most indulgent fruits, and the leanest cuts may be had with very little preparation or effort. Only the miles that food has traveled has increased – it is unlikely that your shrimp come from Mississippi or your rice from Louisiana when refrigerated containers bring them so much more cheaply from China or Central America. The unintended spatial consequences of access to the unseasonable are pollution, waste, higher traffic, wider roads, isolated distribution centers… and the consequent loss in flavor that accompanies the time in transit.

The average consumption of fruits and vegetables is 708 lbs per person in the U.S.; even if backyard food plots only contribute one quarter of our daily needs, they save billions of miles of transport and billions of tons of carbon dioxide emissions. Community-scaled urban farming is achievable within most cities, even at a small scale. Interest grows in times of economic hardship – waiting lists for garden allotments in central London in the past few years have become so choked that many lists have been discarded.

Home-grown produce requires no increase of industrial agricultural lands and labor, does not unbalance the world economy, does not require transportation, and does not use significant amounts of pesticides or fertilizers.  As a defensive strategy in the modern world, food security ranks with energy security, especially in response to recent food riots and increasing prices. Food security depends on decentralized food production: small farmers and rooftop gardens, backyards and planter boxes.  And the results taste a lot better.

[i] “Farmer in Chief”, New York Times Magazine, October 2008.