Plant A Little Extra; Better Yet, Plant A Lot
All across our beleaguered, beloved country, food banks are proliferating, most of them feeding upwards of a thousand people each week, some in urban areas feeding that many a day. The maritime Northwest is no different; Seattle alone has several dozen food banks and pantries, some general, others serving specific populations with specific dietary requirements (Asian and Pacific Islanders, for instance). While a few food banks require photo ID (who knows why?) and proof of a current address (third box on the left under the overpass?), most places figure that if you need food, you are welcome, no proof required. That’s good because today, over 41 million Americans are “food insecure”, meaning they don’t get enough food on a regular basis and often don’t know where the next meal might come from, or if it’s coming at all.
And who are these hungry people? While some are homeless, the majority are working people with homes and families and often multiple jobs that don’t pay enough to cover the cost of living. In 2014, fully a quarter of military families relied on food banks to keep children fed and if anything, that number is rising. Campuses are reporting a food crisis for students whose resources don’t stretch to cover both tuition and nutrition, let alone shelter. Overall, one in seven Americans gets significant amounts of dietary needs met through food bank assistance. In Seattle, the Ballard Food bank fed 26,00 families during the 2008 crash, but in 2016, when the local economy was back in boom mode, they served 40,000 families. In Oregon, 14.6% or over 550,000 people lack food security and rely on food banks. In the Bay Area of California, the Second Harvest food bank now feeds over a quarter of a million people each month.
How Can We Help?
During WWII, families all over the country raised Victory gardens to increase food security at home and free up food for our troops. These days, our wars don’t affect our daily lives much unless we have family and friends in the military or in war ravaged countries. However, food security is a bigger issue than ever, especially since our increasing urban populations rarely have space to grow food or raise chickens, as many Americans still did in the 1940s. Those of us who do have garden space can definitely help feed our neighbors in need by growing an extra row or two. If we have room, we might even double our plots and grow a lot more than we might for our own use.
And what is needed? Fresh produce is always the first thing to run short in food banks. Greens, vegetables, herbs, fruit and flowers are all expensive treats for anyone whose limited budget is largely taken up with housing and medical expenses. While well off folks spend about 30% of their income on housing, those of us with less money may spend 40-50% or more. Add in skyrocketing medical expenses and it’s easy to see why fresh food is all too rare in all too many homes. The good news, of course, it that we gardeners can clearly make a difference there.
Food For Our Neighbors
Knowing that children and oldies make up a large percentage of our hungry compatriots, why not grow some extra fruit? Berries of all kinds are highly recommended by medical practitioners but fresh fruit is expensive at the grocery store. Shared strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, plums, peaches, apples and pears will build health and wellbeing in our community. Tomatoes are America’s favorite backyard crop, beloved as well by the landless. Growing a few extra heavy producers will let you take boxes of ripe tomatoes to the nearest food bank, where they will be eagerly awaited. Greens of all kinds are also in great demand; at our neighborhood community dinners, salads are especially popular and any leftovers are always packed up to take home. Lots of us freeze our extra produce, but we don’t all actually get around to using it up. If your freezer is still full of last year’s rhubarb, take some of this year’s to the food bank. Add a few bunches of parsley, some rosemary, a little thyme and oregano while you’re at it. Fresh herbs can do more for simple food than any packaged “helper” mix and fresh herbs are packed with vitamins and phytonutrients that packaged foods utterly lack.
If you enjoy human contact, consider volunteering for a weekly shift at your local food bank as well. Getting to know your neighbors and seeing which foods are taken first can give you an excellent sense of what to plant. If you, like me, have that need-to-feed gene, helping or hosting regular community meals might be even more pleasurable. Here on Bainbridge Island, local churches offer terrific dinners for the last week of each month, when money runs short and food can get scanty. In season, we like to put our fresh food to take home as well as sending home any leftovers. If that sounds fun (it sure is), find out which local churches serve free meals in your part of the world and take your extra produce there, or better yet, sign up to serve at a meal and take along a big pot of soup made with your own garden vegetables.
Make A Plan
It’s a good idea to plan out the planting of your extra crops, so they don’t arrive all at once. When growing for yourself and others, plant on a staggered basis; sow a few feet of lettuce every other week, and keep root crops like carrots, potatoes, and beets coming by sowing early, midseason, and late varieties. Follow early and late peas with beans to be eaten fresh and dried. Extend cool weather crops like spinach, cabbage, chard, and kale with heat-tolerant types, planted where they’ll receive afternoon shade.
To reduce repetitive chores (as in feeding, weeding, and watering), apply deep (3-4 inch) mulches of mature compost to each bed while the earth is still damp. For extra strong roots, bury 4-6 inches of each tomato plant’s main stem. Give vegetable crops an initial feeding of a mild (5-5-5), balanced fertilizer. Follow up every three weeks with a booster feed of fish emulsion and liquid kelp. Gross feeders like tomatoes and peppers want lots of feeding early in the season, but for best flavor, taper off both food and water by August.
Remember The Pollinators
To ensure good crops, plant long blooming annuals between the clusters or rows and along the ends and edges of each bed. Among my favorite pollinator-attracters are sweet alyssum, calendulas, marigolds, and any kind of herb. Year after year, I’ve noticed tons of bees and many other pollinators drinking deep on rosemary, lavender, sage, thyme, fennel and dill, so I always include those easy going herbs in any edible planting. Naturally, since you want to keep those pollinators alive, never use any kind of sprays intended to wipe out pesky insects or diseases when bees or other pollinators are present. Even organic pesticides can harm bees and other beneficial insects if they take a direct hit or visit sprayed crops too soon after an application, which is bad news if we want a good crop set. Onward!