Does Local Food Begin at Home?
Over the past couple decades there has been much discussion of “local food” in the community and in the media. Often local food is discussed in terms of farmers markets, food co-ops, new farmers, restaurants that specialize in fresh local foods, or Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares, where subscribers receive a weekly box of fresh produce from a local grower.
What has not been part of the public discussion thus far is the role of the home garden in the local food movement. This is puzzling since gardening is still common in rural areas such as ours. Every spring there are brisk sales of garden seeds, plants, and soil amendments, as well as canning and freezing supplies. Cooperative Extension provides reliable information and workshops on gardening and preserving the harvest. Yet, there is very little information available on how many households are gardening, and what they are growing and preserving. Even Cornell University has little statistical information on the current level of gardening in New York State.
Closer to home, GardenShare, a local non-profit in Canton, did a food security survey in 2014 that showed 29% of households obtained at least some of their food from home gardens. The survey had some limitations due to its small sample size and being weighted toward low income households. There are about 40,000 year round households in St Lawrence County and that would mean 11,600 households have gardens. That is a lot of food being grown and consumed at home!
Clearly, a larger, more in-depth survey would give an updated and focused picture about the extent of gardening, and its actual role in local food production in St. Lawrence County. Hopefully, such a survey will be undertaken in the foreseeable future. It could well turn out that the home garden is an overlooked and undervalued community asset in the effort to build a vibrant, healthy local food sector.
There are a number of reasons to think that could be the case. The North Country has a strong tradition of home gardening and home food production, Those food ways extend to cooking and baking as chronicled by Traditional Arts in Upstate New York. In addition to growing food, gardening is important because gardeners experiment with new crops and growing methods, and that makes the local food system more productive and dynamic. The pool of gardeners is also a potential source of new farmer/growers, local food enterprises, and value-added food businesses.
There is also a historical precedent to think that the home garden could become a powerhouse in the lives of local communities and local economies. Today’s Covid-era ‘security gardens” recall the victory gardens of World War II. By 1943 nearly half of the fruit and vegetables in the country were being grown in home and community gardens. A return to gardening on such a large scale would also address growing concerns about food security.
St. Lawrence County residents access their food in a number of different ways, including farm stands, farmers markets as well as grocery stores or other food retailers, such as the Potsdam Food Co-op. In general, consumers are well aware of the importance of locally grown food. The 6th Annual St. Lawrence County Survey of the Community by the Center for Community Studies at SUNY Jefferson in Watertown asked a local food question in their 2020 survey. Seventy-five percent of respondents agreed with the statement, “The food supply chain challenges caused by the coronavirus pandemic have increased the value I put on local food producers.” With ongoing food supply chain issues and higher prices on the way, local food sources, including the home garden, are likely to take on added importance in the months ahead.