Updated: Feb 27
At its most basic, food security grows in living soil.
Therein lies the simple solution to food insecurity, but also the problem. We are, as a species, so far removed from the very thing that sustains us that, we are dangerously close to the point of no return.
This truism hit very close to home for me last week when, during the brutal winter storms that paralyzed Texas, the fresh produce supply chain leading from California to the Pacific Northwest was quite evidently, broken.
Entire banks of produce shelves and bins were empty, vacant. I am still unclear how Texas factors into the equation, but the produce managers at chain and independent grocery stores in my community seemed intimately familiar with the tenuous technological and logistical connections. Correction; disconnection.
I consider myself very fortunate to have remained more-or-less unaffected by the empty produce shelves. When I was done shopping for rice and bread, I went home and harvested greens from my chilly front yard garden. This past fall, I invested some time and scrap lumber, and a small amount of money, in building simple cold frames to shelter my raised vegetable beds through the very long and very cold Canadian winter. My efforts enabled a 12-month harvest of cold-hardy salad greens, brassicas, and root vegetables for my family.
I was not able to build cold frames because I am uniquely capable, special or privileged, rather I did it because I wanted to own some small but important measure of independence and food security for my family. Cold frames built from new or found materials, and small gardens can exist on balconies, rooftops, parkways, driveways, and they are not the dominion of privilege. Rather, they are the dominion of will, of an unwillingness to leave health and happiness in the hands of captains of industry and brokers of GDP.
We must reclaim our rightful connection to soil and to nature. Soil can heal us.
Connecting people everywhere with healthy soil, and the will and wherewithal to work with it to grow food sustainably, could save us from ourselves, and save the planet. It's that simple. We can grow food security in containers, and on our balconies, rooftops, backyards and boulevards. We absolutely can. It isn't hard. Food gardening is not coding, or brain surgery, or game theory; on the contrary, gardening is easy, beautiful, and guided intuitively by nature's logic.
How did we get here?
Shortly after WWII, captains of industry and consumer advertising thought that manufactured, highly-processed, and synthetic foods were not only good for people, but necessary for maintaining employment of factory work forces, and ensuring sustained economic growth.
Shortly thereafter, throughout much of the country, homegrown anything created or offered by capable humans with a wealth of inherited knowledge, became shameful symbols of non-affluence and non-sophistication. Schoolyard bullies with super-cool, highly-processed, non-perishable fake food wrapped in single use plastic, terrorized children with nutritious homemade wholewheat sandwiches, or the ultimate sacrilege, left-over homemade dinner in re-usable Tupperware.
I know this to be true. I grew up in a city in the '70s and endured ridicule for bringing un-cool school lunches containing sandwiches made with 'weird' German-style rye bread, and 'stinky' home-made potato and egg salad. I secretly loved my lunches, who wouldn't? The teasing though, was horrific.
Up until the post-war age on non-enlightenment, homemade and homegrown anything represented untold wealth and health. It isn't complicated, really. Healthy soil, rich in SOM (Soil Organic Matter consisting of living and formerly living things), and people (the animal, plant and fungi kingdoms in fact) were made for (and from, ironically) each other.
Healthy soil knows exactly how to grow food to keep people healthy. The all-natural process varies incrementally by geographic region, and cannot be replicated or synthesized in a food factory, anywhere. It isn't possible, or advisable.
Knowing this as an absolute truth, we can look back on previous decades and chronicle the slow-drip decline in human health and food security, and in parallel, and unprecedented increase in cancer, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, anxiety, mental illness, and lack of economic opportunity. This sounds simplistic and dramatic, but it is true.
Granted, dozens of complex variables and determinants factor into the problem and its inequitable distribution (racism, sexism, politics, religion, etc), but when you drill down and back far enough, the disconnect between health, opportunity and happiness, mirrors the disconnect between people and access to healthy food - that is access to healthy soil, and the freedom, will, and wherewithal to work it.
Food insecurity is a massive, crisis-level problem, globally. In the United States, 54 million people* (17% of the population) reported as being food insecure in 2020, and in Canada almost 15%** of the population reported food insecurity. Shamefully, we brought this upon ourselves in North America, and unlike the food insecure developing world and war-torn regions, we cannot blame poverty, dictators, drought, or climate change incited by foreign powers. It is time to wake up and take some measure of personal responsibility, and to hold the accountable, accountable.
*Association of American Medical Colleges **Stats Canada
We can and must legislate policy, education, and opportunity changes at community, city, state/province, and federal levels, to enable equitable access and incentives to grow food in healthy, life-giving soil, at home, at school, in neighborhoods, in community gardens, in town and city market gardens, and within reach of regional distribution centres servicing 'all' population groups. We can vote for change, we can demand change, we can model change.
In the near term, as the national food systems supply chain grows weaker and less reliable, and catastrophic climate change pressures governments to legislate beneficial environmental and social policy changes that survive election cycles, we can each fill a bucket, bin, bed or backyard with beautiful living soil and start growing a healthy future for ourselves and our planet.
And, if you need help and encouragement, or have questions, just ask.
To learn about urban permaculture and permaculture principles, such as those relating to traditional culinary and environmental knowledge, and adherence to nature's logic, watch Modern Farmer Magazine's Urban Permaculture video series in which publisher Frank Giustra and I introduce the basics.
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top photo: Alamy