Today in the United States, 1 in every 6 people live in poverty.
Fifty million Americans are food insecure, meaning they are left worrying about from where their next meal will come or if they will have enough nutritious food and will be able to adequately prepare it to feed themselves and their families. Will their supply of food run out before thy have enough money to buy more? Will they have to skip a meal to ration what they have?
That insecurity could be born of economic limitations, a lack of accessibility to healthy fresh foods, or the simple lack of knowledge of how to access and prepare nutritious foods.
Friday morning, food security was the focus of the day-long Keys to Ending Homelessness Conference, the 7th in a series of conferences hosted by the City of Lowell as part of its Partnership for Change to End Homelessness.
City Manager Bernie Lynch said while the main focus in the fight against homelessness is “housing first,” food is a basic need that has to be addressed.
It is imperative, he said, to give people the tools they need to overcome the problems they are faced with in life.
Essentially, it comes back to the “give a man a fish and he will eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he will eat for life” principle.
A movement that has gained steam in Lowell recently is part of that solution – community gardens.
The city has partnered with Mill City Grows to create and cultivate community gardens on once vacant blighted city-owned lots, which had previously been magnets for crime.
This past summer, 40 gardeners grew a bounty of produce in the community garden at Rotary Park in the city’s Back Central neighborhood. In addition to eggplant, tomatoes and bok choy, the garden has grown a neighborhood.
People who under other circumstances would never have the opportunity to speak to each other were sharing gardening secrets and recipes, learning about each other’s food and culture.
“It engages people and helps people understand how food is produced while building community,” said Lynch. “It is helping people help themselves.”
Mill City Grows is working with ACTION (Acre Coalition to Improve Our Neighborhood) to create a similar garden on a city owned parcel on Whiting Street and with the Lower Highlands Neighborhood Group to build a community garden on a vacant city-owned lot on Smith Street.
“Gardening is the single greatest skill humans have come up with,” said Roger Swain, former host of the “Victory Garden” on PBS and co-host of “People, Places and Plants” on HGTV, who served as the keynote speaker at the conference.
Swain explained in 1944, 44 percent of all fresh fruits and vegetables in this country were grown and picked by 20 million home gardeners, growing crops in their World War II “victory gardens.”
“We need more victory gardens,” Swain said, not because of the war in Afghanistan or anywhere else, but because they are needed here at home. “The act of raising some of your own food is a spectacular endeavor with all kinds of benefits.”
There are 7,864 farmers’ markets in the U.S. (including the Lowell Farmers Market) and more than 4,000 Community Supported Agriculture locations (like Farmer Dave’s in Dracut) where people purchase a “share” of the crops grown by the farmer, picking up a box of fresh produce weekly at the farm.
Swain said urban farming is possible through the use of raised garden beds, which can be placed anywhere: on top of contaminated soil, on parking lots or on roofs.
He added gardening is one of the greatest signs of optimism and hope for the future.
You plant a seed or seedling with the expectation you will be around to harvest it when it matures. The annual cycle of planting and harvesting is therapy, he said.
Swain pointed to St. Louis, which has planted the City Seeds Urban Farm, right off of the highway, where the homeless, addicted, mentally ill and recently-paroled farm the land.
Its mission is to provide job training, therapeutic horticulture, and education, for troubled people, while increasing the production and distribution of locally produced food. It also serves as a resource for community education, sustainable urban agriculture and food security.
The other benefits of growing your own food are the opportunities that come with excess: sharing and the culinary creativity born of having to cook a bushel of zucchini.
Swain encouraged thinking outside the box, making a watermelon, feta, olive and basil salad or sautéing Brussel sprouts in a little bacon fat, slicing them and placing a piece of thick cut bacon inside — Brussel sprout sliders.
Others who addressed the conference included: James Arena-DeRosa, Northeast Regional Administrator of the USDA Food and Nutrition Service; Daniel J. Curley, Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance; and Park Wilde, an Associate Professor at Tufts’ Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.
After lunch, participants attended a series of workshops on food security, food stamps, food policy, wellness and grant opportunities.
For information regarding future conferences in the city’s Partnership for Change to End Homelessness, contact Linda King at firstname.lastname@example.org.