Let’s Bring Back Victory Gardens

Reader Contribution by Linda Holliday
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Forty-one percent of the produce Americans consumed in 1943 was grown in Victory Gardens across the country. How about if we roll up our sleeves and match that great generation?

With the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Stamp Program slated for drastic cuts over the next 10 years, I wonder how 48 million recipients are being advised to adjust. Cuts loom ahead, too, for Social Security and other benefit programs.

Is home gardening ever encouraged as a way to offset the escalating cost of, well, everything?

Some say it is cruel to ask people to grow some of their food as Americans did during the first two world wars. News from then, however, indicates people felt proud to contribute, saved money, had better health and enjoyed gardening with family and friends.

We agree. Also, we are certain our food is organic. How did gardens (and clotheslines!) ever become symbols of poverty anyway? We consider them icons of abundance, fitness and good stewardship.

One of my favorite gardening guides is a World War II booklet International Harvester Company printed that covers everything from cold frames to hot beds and root cellars. “Get at the garden in time. Make a plan for it. Hang it on the wall. Talk about it … Make up your mind when you will plant the different things—then plant them,” the booklet advises.

Now, here’s the part I really like — “Take care of it—it won’t take care of itself. Anything worth having is worth working for. What isn’t worth working for isn’t worth anything. A good garden will make the home more homelike.”

I found the 80-page booklet among some old cookbooks. It had obviously been referred to many times through the years, and even has a carefully mended front cover.  “Grow Your Living,” the booklet warns. “It May Not Be Available for You to Buy.”

EBT snafu

We hope last week’s Electronic Benefit Transfer system debacle in Louisiana does not reveal how people will behave if they fear their benefits might cease or food becomes scarce. During a two-hour glitch that temporarily disabled EBT card limits in several states, Walmart shoppers in two Louisiana stores filled their carts to overflowing. Some customers reportedly pulled trains of 8 to 10 carts through the store or returned for more groceries after bringing one load home, according to online reports.

Meanwhile, we wonder – what were people thinking? Did they fear the system was down for good and they needed to stockpile? (Storing masses of food is never a sustainable solution. Gardening is.)

End of surpluses

The Food Stamp Program has been reworked several times since inception in 1939. It was discontinued in 1943 “since the conditions that brought the program into being—unmarketable food surpluses and widespread unemployment—no longer existed,” according to the USDA website. So, it is not unthinkable the program could disappear again.

Originally, recipients bought stamps in two colors: orange for any food product and blue for surplus. For every dollar of orange stamps bought, the buyer received 50 cents of blue stamps for free to exchange for agricultural surplus items, such as milk, eggs or cheese.

In 1961, Congress approved a pilot program that no longer included surplus foods. The stamps still were purchased as the USDA did not want to undermine recipients’ dignity. Three years later, Congress made the program permanent.

A major change came in 1977 when food stamps no longer had to be purchased. The move to stop requiring payment for stamps disappointed many who had supported the program as a means to help the poor help themselves, not as a direct government handout. We were on our way to making people utterly dependent on the system.

Food Stamp budget cuts

An announced $4 billion food stamp budget cut will affect future applicants and everyone on the program now. About 4 million people will be cut during 2014 and 1 to 3 million will be cut each consecutive year until 2023.

FoodStamps.org posted some program reconstruction solutions, which includes removing illegal immigrants. Currently, children born to illegal immigrants in the United States are entitled to benefits, as are their parents. Proposed agricultural solutions include co-ops where recipients work for their food. FoodStamps.org says these solutions “seem barbaric to some progressives.”

I found few practical preparation ideas, though, for recipients to become independent of the program. FoodStamps.org suggests that single, able-bodied participants find work, become vegan or create a self-reliant food lifestyle. A separate blog briefly explained gardening as an option.

Another option is to combine vegetables with meat, grains, dairy, or other foods to make them last longer. The site also suggests making vegetables more interesting by smothering them in dips and sauces. Or, coat celery sticks with peanut butter and decorate with raisins. Also, exchange recipes with Facebook friends.

The site’s advice seems elementary, but is actually more than I found on the USDA’s site. To its credit, the food stamp program now allows recipients to buy seeds. Finally — an idea for sustainability.

Teaching People to Grow Food

The USDA was not initially keen on promoting home gardening. When First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt planted a vegetable garden on the White House grounds, USDA leaders worried her public example would hurt industrial agriculture.

Eventually, the government endorsed household and community food plots and supplied gardening literature and this 20-minute film to help people plant victory gardens.

About 20 million Americans answered the call to plant victory gardens during World War II.  When prosperity resumed, however, many plots were abandoned.

Today, as food prices skyrocket and more people are unable to feed their households, it is time to get growing. As they did in Cuba when their economy collapsed, we should be planting food on rooftops, in window boxes, along the sidewalk, next to the garage – anywhere there is dirt.

Modern gardening experts such as Marjory Wildcraft and Rick Austin say we don’t need to plow up the whole back 40 to feed our families. Start small – and keep growing.

Let’s bring back Victory Gardens. For more photos and info, see our blog.

Linda Holliday lives in the Missouri Ozarks where she and her husband formed Well WaterBoy Products, a company devoted to helping people live more self-sufficiently off grid with human power, and invented theWaterBuck Pump.