Food prices sending urbanites to backyards

Food prices sending urbanites to backyards

Community garden trend starting to grow


Carmen Beattie knelt on the moist dirt of her L-shaped backyard garden. Between pulling the occasional weed or discovering garlic bulbs that obviously came from her compost, the 30-something urbanite calculated the small investment she made this year and the yields of food she expects to harvest throughout the much-anticipated summer months.

She spent about $60 on soil to create approximately 40 square metres of garden space. She spent another $50 on seeds and tools, an investment she hopes will eliminate the need to buy produce at the grocery store this year. She and thousands of other Canadians have turned to their backyards to grow food in recent months, especially with the rising cost of food and the crippling economy that created spikes in unemployment and welfare rates across the country.

Expensive bills at the grocery store drove up consumer prices and contributed to a higher rate of inflation in the past year, according to data released last month from Statistics Canada. While higher costs and job layoffs have forced more people to food banks, a large number of people have taken a much more proactive approach to accessing food. Community gardens have seen a spike in membership numbers and soil providers have seen increases in sales, especially from people looking to grow food instead of grass in their backyards.

The long winter has slowed the start of this year's growing season and not everyone has seen an increase in people looking for soil for home farms. But for the local experts who have seen an increase, they say, without a doubt, that more people want to grow their own food. It's a trend not seen since the aftermath of victory gardens during the Second World War.

"I'm definitely going to save some money, but I did it for much more than that," Beattie explained.

Food prices continue to rise, despite the falling cost of gasoline in the past year and the current recession has shown no sign of rebounding any time soon, despite positive statements coming from the G20 Summit this week.

Statistics Canada reported a 7.4% increase in the price of food in the 12 months leading up to February, which was the leading factor in ballooning consumer prices and higher inflation rates. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said Friday the Canadian economy is likely to "accelerate" out of a "mild" recession, but warned that policy-makers may face a significant inflation problem in coming months.

Others forecast more gloom. Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney expects the first quarter to be the worst in modern times, surpassing a 5.9% contraction set during the first three months of 1991. He said the economy would continue to shrink with no meaningful recovery until early 2010 at the earliest. With so much financial turmoil ahead, people will have to get innovative to meet their basic needs.

Eating well during a recession can be difficult, according to a global consumer study produced by TNS, one of Canada's largest social research organizations. About 41% of Canadian consumers indicate they can't afford to eat better, the report found. But Nanaimo's Dirk Becker said people need to look no further than their own homes. The founder of the Bowen Road Farmers' Market has met more people in recent months looking for advice about starting their own gardens.

"All you need is some good soil, some seeds, water and sunshine," he said. "There's really no better way to eat cheap, healthy food. And the work itself builds community in your household, with your neighbours and others in the community."

More people are wanting to start their own gardens and they quickly realize the task is not as complicated as they thought, according to Lee Sanmiya, who helps operate the Nanaimo Community Gardens Society.

"Not only have we had increased interest from people wanting to grow in their own yards and in communal gardens, more people are offering land for others to grow" she said.

Beattie started planting on her own last year. She had a much smaller crop and only tried to grow a few different products. Since then, she's visited the community gardens and Becker's Lantzville farm, picking up a few pointers to get ready for this season. She will nearly triple her tomato plant production. Last year she had 15 and is aiming for at least 40.

"Even with just the 15, I had more tomatoes than I knew what to do with," she said. "I've already seeded 50 plants, so I hope it's a good year for tomatoes because I sure don't have any tricks up my sleeve. I figure I could sell them, give them to friends or donate them to the (community) gardens. There's no harm in having too many."

And she will have more than just bright red tomatoes. Beattie plans to have zucchini, eggplant, garlic, onions, spinach, beats, radishes, carrots, green beans (because she loves green beans), and potatoes. The backyard of her Pine Street home gets plenty of sun, so she will also plant peppers.

"I have a bit of anxiety because there's nothing coming growing out yet," she said, pointing to the small plots she has against her fence line. "But I have to remind myself that it's early and it's been cold. I've seeded them, I've weeded and they have lots of water, all I need now is some warmth and sun."

Angelique Nash-Thurmeier just started growing her own food at the community garden, which just returned to its Pine Street location. After helping people grow for the first few years, she saw "how people connected through food." Rising food prices in grocery stores makes her worry about food security.

"Growing my own, saves me money. I rarely go shopping," she said. "And its so easy. You just get some dirt, throw some seeds in and water them. It takes some time, but it's not rocket science."

Backyard gardening has disappeared in the past half century. Not since the victory gardens of the Second World War have North Americans so passionately covered their lawns in rich food-producing soil. Part of this stems from the gentrification of communities and the growing desire to eliminate the rural farming image from urban centres, according to John Steinman, host of the award-winning community radio program Deconstructing Dinner.

Backyard farming really took off during the 1930s when a much larger percentage of the population toiled in the fields. When the depression hit, farmers in rural areas migrated to city centres and simply grew their own food because they had the skills, Steinman explained. Then came the Second World War and the victory gardens, a patriotic push to relieve pressure from the public food supply that fed the war effort.

"That was the last major spike," Steinman said. "From that point to now, that presence of gardening has declined."

By the middle of the 20th century a new trend emerged as urbanites separated city life from rural life in an effort to disconnect from the farm.

"Part of that was the luxury of going to the grocery store . . . and that's the foundation of the food system we have today," Steinman said. "We're now starting to see the breakdown of that fantasy. Economically we're seeing that and people are aware of the issue and are interested to reconnect with their food."

Several cities around the United States have attempted to revive the victory garden patriotism. San Francisco artist Amy Franceshini convinced her city to begin Victory Gardens, a pilot project funded by the city to support the transition of backyard farming, which will increase local food security and reduce the food distance that food travels.


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