Toward a community of gardeners

Monday September 24, 2012

There are a number of qualities that a food system requires in order to be sustainable. Some of these we’ve written about in past columns, like food justice, where a healthy, safe diet is accessible and affordable to all. Or a food system that is community-based, where the business of feeding ourselves, as well as our next door and regional neighbors, serves as the basis of an agriculture economy, and the allied jobs and enterprises it stimulates.

At the most basic level, our food system must keep us healthy and alive. In the context of the volatile post petroleum world we’ve entered, a sustainable food system must be increasingly local and decentralized, less dependent on fossil fuel input, more redundant and resilient. It will be grounded, not in considerations of the bottom line and instant gratification, but in taking care of our land, water, and air for seven generations from now. It’s this kind of vision which, when acted upon, allows for a sustainable diet, right now, and for its possibility in the future, as well.

Finally, in the context of today’s growing evidence that climate change is developing exponentially, with dire consequences for our climate-fragile food system, there is something else that is particularly relevant. To feed ourselves in a sustainable manner, our concern and focus must elevate to a level of action that is appropriate to what we plainly see happening.

There are at least three things we can be doing. These include increasingly supporting our local and regional farmers; growing, preserving and cooking more of our own food ourselves; and encouraging our local and state officials to both acknowledge food security for the serious issue that it is, and adopting policies commensurate with this crisis. None of these are radical departures from the past and present practice of many Vermonters. Rather, what we’re suggesting is that they now require a more intentional approach, one that results in a greater commitment to feeding ourselves.

We need to become a community of gardeners.

This is not to suggest that we will feed ourselves by our efforts, alone. Our local and regional farmers -- even the industrial food system that is currently breaking down -- are part of the food security equation, and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

But in order to provide the resilience we will require to be food secure, there is no substitute for all of us taking more responsibility for our own food, anyway we can, individually and collectively, as families and abutting neighbors, members of neighborhood and community gardens, in containers, window boxes, 9-by-12 lawns, or empty lots, and through canning bees, shared root cellars and hoop houses, and pot luck socials. As people found with their Victory Gardens in WWII, an incredible amount of food can be produced by an active, involved citizenry.

An example of this kind of effort is the Greater Falls Community Garden Collaborative. Emerging at the end of 2011 from a series of community conversations around the issue of how to make locally produced food more accessible and affordable to everyone in the community, the GFCGC is a coalition of six partner school and community gardens in Bellows Falls, plus the Greater Falls Prevention Coalition, Our Place Drop-In Center, Post Oil Solutions, and the Rockingham town manager.

The vision of the Collaborative is to encourage everyone within the project’s catchment area (Rockingham, Bellows Falls, Westminister, Saxtons River, Cambridgeport, Grafton and Athens) to be involved in the production of their food. This is a most ambitious plan, and one that may take some time to realize, but as a grandmother of 10 put it, "If you don’t aim high, you might as well stay in bed."

To jump start the project, we went to the voters at the Rockingham town meeting in March and the Bellows Falls village meeting in May. In each instance, we were greeted with enthusiasm and $1,500 to pursue these efforts.

We’re presently exploring four plots in Bellows Falls as community or neighborhood gardens for 2013, as well as developing 9-by-12 and container garden campaigns for people with more limited space and time. We especially hope to enlist the support and participation of local merchants, encouraging them to have a window box or container growing something edible. For both campaigns, there’ll be publicity, prizes and community celebrations during Old Homes Day in August. (Oh, yeah, we’re going to have some fun, too!)

We’re also looking to develop a cash crop to help sustain the Collaborative, and perhaps to partner with a local food store or restaurant. In this way, we hope to demonstrate how growing food stimulates the local economy.

The Collaborative is also about educating people. Specifically, we will launch a monthly food film series on Oct. 18, and are planning a series of workshops in 2013 by local people on how to cook with local food, easily and inexpensively; to store food for the winter in a home or apartment, without having to build an expensive root cellar; and to grow an abundance of food on a patch of lawn, or containers (which we’ll provide).

Finally, people ask us, what about all that food that will be lying around town: won’t it be stolen or trashed?

Surely, we hope not. But people will be free to help themselves because we assume that anyone who does so needs the food. Yes, our signage might ask one to help weed, or otherwise pitch in. But an attitude of good will and generosity is also basic to building a community of gardeners.

Tim Stevenson is a community organizer with Post Oil Solutions and can be reached at 802.869.2141 and


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