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Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Grow Your Own

Milwaukeeans plant for the future

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 When faced with a radical crisis, when survival is threatened, an organism will either die or adapt to the circumstances within its habitat. Adaptation is a basic phenomenon of biology, and humanity is certainly not exempt. In fact, our highly developed brains, capable of language, introspection, problem solving and abstract reasoning, reveal we are quite accomplished at it. No reason we should stop now.

 When America’s civic and political leaders witnessed their allies suffering from food shortages during World War I, they wanted to prepare our country for hard times. A campaign was mounted to encourage citizens to grow their own produce in urban and suburban “war gardens” so they could sustain themselves during the conflict. During the Second World War, “victory gardens” were heavily promoted to bolster patriotic self-sufficiency and to direct all available resources toward the war effort. Recent years have seen a driving resurgence of victory gardens, but the battle we face today is different than that of our forebears and the assault is on multiple fronts.

 “We are fighting for food security from an industrial agriculture system that is destroying our health and the health of our ecosystems,” explains Gretchen Mead of the Victory Garden Initiative. “We are fighting against corporate greed and for resilient communities and strong local economies. We are fighting to reduce the use of fossil fuels. We’re fighting for a connection to the cycle of life and for nutritious, delicious foods.”

 Promoting Self-Sufficiency

 When the topic of worldwide food shortage is debated now, disbelievers cry “alarmist!” Perhaps a lifetime of buying food from well-stocked grocery stores has lulled us into believing it will always be there. Or maybe it’s pride that the fruit of America’s vast farmland is infinite or that starvation only happens in dusty Third World countries. Yet when we’re children we learn from fairy tales like The Three Little Pigs that foresight and sensible planning combined with hard labor will make us triumph over even our most formidable foe.

 “We don’t have to look into the future to see the impact of food insecurity in the United States,” says Jan Christensen of the YMCA Community Development Center and key organizer of the Victory Garden at Kilbourn Park. Last June, a chaotic scene flared up outside Milwaukee County’s main welfare office when approximately 3,000 people lined up to receive FoodShare benefits, a federal program that provides about 30 days’ worth of food stamps to low-income residents who have incurred damage in a declared disaster, in this case a flood. In 2004 and 2005 members of the Riverwest Health Initiative surveyed a random selection of households throughout Riverwest and found that 21% of respondents reported skipping meals because they could not afford them. Food is one of humankind’s basic needs, and if a portion of our population is going hungry, our society as a whole cannot function adequately, let alone thrive.

 According to Reaping on the Margins: A Century of Community Gardening in America by Thomas Bassett, the U.S.D.A. estimated that more than 20 million garden plots were planted in 1942, with some 9-10 million pounds of fruit and vegetables grown a year—44% of the fresh vegetables in the United States. If today we began maintaining gardens in our yards, patios and public spaces with the same enthusiasm, we could use the food we produce to heal and build our communities suffering in this tough economy.

 “There is a real job in building and maintaining a victory garden,” Christensen explains. “If a two-income family becomes a one-income family, one of them can start a victory garden to not only save the family money by growing their own fruits and vegetables, but also make $1,000 a month over the course of the summer by selling the produce at a farmers’ market.”

Yours, From Seed to Plate

 The advantages of growing your own are more than just economic. A slew of victory gardens have sprouted since the public learned that, in the wrong hands, spinach and tomatoes can kill people. The causes of food-borne illnesses are often hard to pinpoint because the food passes through many hands from start to finish. Was it genetically modified? Was the soil contaminated? Were chemical fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides or pesticides sprayed on the food? How was it processed? Where was it stored? How was it transported? Growing your own produce means you can sink your teeth into the zucchini you planted in spring with peace of mind, knowing you had complete control of your food from seed to plate.

 Corporate farming’s system of mechanized agriculture—planting, fertilizing, processing, packaging and transporting—uses a tremendous amount of fossil fuel and exacts a hefty toll on the environment. Planting, maintaining and harvesting a victory garden, on the other hand, relies on the toil of the gardener. Victory gardens are an active, inexpensive, educational and family-friendly hobby that keeps you outdoors, interacting with neighbors and reaping the benefits of a little one-on-one time with Mother Earth.

 The local and national victory garden movement has been dramatically accelerated by virtue of Internet list serves and Web sites. Milwaukee hosted last year’s Urban Agriculture Conference because of its large population of progressive and dedicated urban producers, planners, community organizations and activists. They are an invaluable resource for anyone interested in participating in the victory garden movement on any level.

 If you’re looking for a way to dig in, join the Victory Garden Initiative and community partners for the citywide Memorial Weekend Victory Garden Blitz on May 23-24. Multiple victory gardens will be installed across the metro-area in response to our city’s immediate need for localized food security and nutrition.

 Comment on this story at ExpressMilwaukee.com.

Web Sites of Interest

The Victory Garden Initiative: http://thevictorygardeninitiative.com

Victory Garden at Kilbourn Park: http://victorygardenmke.wordpress.com/

Growing Power: http://www.GrowingPower.org

Milwaukee Urban Gardens: http://www.milwaukeeurbangardens.org

Off the Grid: http://offthegridmke.wordpress.com/about/