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Fearing Shortages, People Are Planting More Vegetable Gardens

Mark Levisay

People still struggle to find food at grocery stores during this pandemic, but Jameson Altott is not as worried. He grows more than half the food for his family from his large garden at home, outside Pittsburgh.

"We are lucky to have preserved a lot of food and we still have canned fruits and vegetables and jams and berries in the freezer and meat in the freezer," Altott says.

There has been a surge of people interested in growing their own food. Oregon State University's Master Gardener program noticed this, and made their online vegetable gardening course free through the end of April. Their post on Facebook was shared more than 21,000 times.

"We're being flooded with vegetable orders," says George Ball, executive chairman of the Burpee Seed Company, based in Warminster, Penn.

Ball says he has noticed spikes in seed sales during bad times: the stock market crash of 1987, the dotcom bubble burst of 2000, and he remembers the two oil crises of the 1970s from his childhood. But he says he has not seen a spike this large and widespread.

A group of college students, residents, and activists in Cleveland have crowdfunded a community garden. They have been running a free meal delivery service for those in need, are running out of donated fresh vegetables, and are planning for the long term. They say they were thinking of Victory Gardens, which started in World War I when President Woodrow Wilson asked Americans to plant vegetable gardens to prevent food shortages.

Leah Penniman already teaches people how to farm, and has adapted her team's programming online. She is co-director and farm manager at Soul Fire Farm, a community farm in New York state that fights racism and injustice in the food system.

She says her farm's mantra is "to free ourselves, we must feed ourselves," which comes out of the teachings of civil rights activist and leader Fannie Lou Hamer. Hamer turned to agriculture in the late 1960s, launching a " pig bank" for black farmers, and the Freedom Farm Cooperative, buying land for black farmers to own and farm collectively.

"We can't fundamentally have freedom and autonomy and dignity and community power without some measure of control of our food systems," Penniman said. "I think this gardening interest arises from a visceral understanding of that truth."

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