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The security of our food systems has been a topic of concern for some time. Between 2017 and 2018 about 12% of Canadian households reported being food insecure (ranging from marginal to severe insecurity). Times of crisis highlight the reality of our food systems. They show us how well prepared (or not) we are to handle challenges that can impact them.
The COVID-19 pandemic, in particular, spread fear about what would happen if production and supply chains failed. There was mass hysteria at the supermarkets and grocery stores; people stocked up on basic foods like canned vegetables and frozen meats. In Canada, local capacity for food production was threatened. There was a risk that tens of thousands of temporary foreign workers that Canada’s agriculture sector relies on wouldn’t be able to enter the country. Our dependence on imported foods also makes us vulnerable to the fragility of trade relationships in times of emergency.
Food security is a complex topic, so in this post we’re exploring simple strategies for how you can become more food secure today.
Topics in this post:
Food security builds a more resilient society
People are food secure when they can access the food they need for a healthy life at all times. Food Secure Canada’s core goals for advancing food security and sovereignty provide a picture of what food security should look like:
- Zero Hunger: Everyone has access to food despite their economic means.
- Healthy and safe food: High quality, nutritious and fresh food that is culturally appropriate.
- More resilient food systems: Food systems that use ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and can withstand crises and recovery quickly.
Food is a basic necessity of life, and access to high quality, nutritious and safe foods is critical for our health and wellbeing.
Our food systems are vulnerable. Factors like labour shortages or crop failure caused by natural disasters and weather patterns can disrupt the journey from farm to plate. Many people also lack the economic means to purchase healthy foods. The costs associated with the transport, packing and refrigeration of food drive up the price of fresh fruits and vegetables in urban centres, and increase their scarcity on dinner plates.
Poor nutrition can increase stress, tiredness and decrease our energy. Over the long term, it can lead to an increased risk of illnesses and health problems like tooth decay, high blood pressure and cholesterol, osteoporosis and depression.
Building food security is a key component of building a just and resilient society that offers better opportunities for all.
How can we become more food secure?
Local strategies are a crucial component of resilient food systems. At a systems level, we can improve our local food production, transport and storage processes so that they don’t negatively impact the environment. Farming practices can also evolve to use a regenerative agriculture approach that restores degraded soils by using techniques like cover crops, crop rotations, compost and animal manures.
At an individual level, we can contribute to our food security by growing herbs, vegetables and fruits in any space we have available.
Grow your own food security
Growing your own vegetables, herbs and fruits is a great way to increase your access to healthy and nutritious foods. You just need a few ‘ingredients’ to get started: secure access to suitable land, space or light to grow food, and gardening skills. There are lots of online resources with in depth information, so you can pick up knowledge as you grow.
The types of food you can grow will depend on what kind and how much space you have, the direction and strength of sunlight and wind, and soil type and quality. If your soil is not ideal or maybe your plot is a parking lot, you can build planter boxes or “raised beds” to lift your crops off the ground.
An allotment is an area of land that you can rent for a fee from a local municipality or private landlord. Allotment gardening has a long history in the United Kingdom and Europe. There are an estimated 300,000 plot holders, and about 90,000 people on waiting lists in the UK. In Germany, there are about one million allotments, with 70,000 in Berlin alone. Allotments tend to be larger plots that are located further out from the city centre.
What to grow: In the UK, common crops include vegetables like kale, celery, brussel sprouts and sweet potatoes. Herbs are popular too and include sage, lemon balm, rosemary, and coriander. Some allotments can even grow fruit including applies, cherries, pears and blackcurrants.
A community garden is typically smaller than an allotment and is usually located within a city neighbourhood. A group of people make decisions together about how to run the garden, and often they collaboratively clean, maintain and harvest the space. Some gardeners have individual plots and then they join with others to grow specific crops.
Community garden plots can large and small, on the ground or on rooftops. Community gardeners even take over unconventional spaces like underutilized development lots in Vancouver or parts of Berlin’s unused Templehof Airport.
Vegetables and herbs are good options to grow in a community garden. Take advantage of companion planting to minimize your risk of crop failure, protect your crops from pests and weather, and support plant pollination.
What to grow: A good companion planted crop combination is: carrots planted at one end of your plot and tomatoes at the other end, with onions, chives, basil and nasturtium (edible leaves and flowers!) in the middle.
Vigorous growing plans in the cucurbits family like cucumber, gourds, melons, squashes and pumpkins are better to grow communally in one large plot or else they tend to take over! Corn is a good crop to grow in a group too to help pollination and not shade too many other garden plots around you.
Growing in your front, back or side yard is a great opportunity to increase your food security close to home. You can grow many of the same foods in a yard, as you would in an allotment or a community gardens.
If you have a shared back yard, like in a townhouse complex, get creative and collaborate with your neighbours. The long grass strips between your units could grow vegetables for your whole street.
What to grow: If you plan to live in your home for a long time, you can also consider slow-maturing crops and perennial vegetables that are planted once and harvested year after year. Some of these multi-year growers include:
- Rhubarb (enjoy the stalks, but not the poisonous leaves)
- Sorrel (an early growing green with a tangy, lemony flavor)
- Chives (for a fresh addition to any meal in minutes)
- Aspargus (plant in a sunny spot with well-draining soil)
- Horseradish (for some extra kick)
- Garlic (leave the bulbs in the soil, and just eat the garlic scapes above ground instead)
- Kale (cover with mulch over the winter for early spring regrowth)
- Ramps (wild leeks that pop up early in the spring, all parts are edible)
Indoor container gardening
You just need a window sill or table and adequate light to container garden indoors. Most vegetables need 14-16 hours of light to bud and flower. You can achieve this with sunlight and/or simulated grow lights. It’s especially important to supplement daylight if you plan to grow through the winter months.
Pick plants that don’t grow too big, and have similar light, humidity and water needs.
What to grow: The best crops to grow indoors include vegetables like peppers, salad greens, carrots, onions, tomatoes, and bush beans. Herbs such as basil, lavender, rosemary and parsley are great too. With enough light, some indoor gardeners can even grow strawberries! A hanging basket in a window works well.
When choosing grow lights, look for compact fluorescent systems, high intensity discharge (HID) bulbs or Hortilux HPS bulbs. High pressure sodium (red-orange light to benefit flowering) or metal halide bulbs (blue-white colour to encourage leafy growth and compact plants) will work well.
There are lots of neglected public spaces scattered throughout our cities. Guerilla gardeners reclaim these boulevards and vacant lots to cultivate the land for plants.
Some guerilla gardening efforts are more welcome than others. And so, if you’re planning a surprise planting, choose plants that don’t require too much care.
What to grow: Vegetables like pumpkins, onions and potatoes are some of these less finicky crops.
Increase your access to food without a garden
Sometimes it’s not possible to grow your own food. We get it. It takes a lot of time and energy, and you may not have the space or resources to do it. There are lots of volunteer opportunities with local food programs that help you give back to your community and increase your access to nutritious foods.
Many community gardens look for volunteers and sometimes you can take home surplus foods in exchange for your efforts. OxGrow, a community garden in Oxford, England, runs one of these programs. There are also volunteer opportunities with initiatives aimed at saving unused fruit, such as Operation Fruit Rescue Edmonton.
You can still use your yard to grow food, even if you’re not the one doing the work. Yard sharing arrangements match growers with unused space. Instead of paying to use the land, the landowner and grower agree on a percent of food in exchange.
Foraging is also an option, even in urban centres. Use Falling Fruit—an online map that shows over 1.4 million locations for about 2,700 different types of edible plants around the world—to learn what’s around you.
Community Supported Agriculture
When you do buy food, consider supporting your local farmers by subscribing to a community-supported agriculture model. This system connects food producers with consumers to share the risks of farming and the harvest. In exchange for subscribing to be a member, you receive a weekly or bi-weekly box of produce and other products from a specific farm or group of farms.
Urgenci, the international network of community-supported agriculture has a map of CSA programs around the world. Other organizations in North American offer similar resources, including the Canadian Organic Growers organization’s links to organic CSA directories for British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Quebec, Atlantic Canada and Ontario, and the United States Agricultural Marketing Service.
Conclusion: Become food secure, with or without a garden plot
This is definitely not the last time we’ll talk about food security. There are so many ways to become more food secure and to live a more resilient and sustainable lifestyle. From growing your way to food security with an allotment, community garden, yard garden, indoor container garden or a guerilla garden in the public realm. If access to green space isn’t available, you can also volunteer, yard share, forage or join a community supported agriculture program to become more food resilient today. Hopefully this post can help you start growing your own food to build individual and community resiliency. 😊