Hungry for Solutions - A Gardener’s View
The Summit on Idaho Hunger and Food Security 2023
By Mary K Johnson 10/17/23
I am a pandemic-era gardener and have been cultivating a quarter-acre plot with the help of high school students from One Stone and community gardeners since 2021, dedicating approximately 4-12 hours per week. Last week, I attended the Summit on Idaho Hunger and Food Security with nine students currently enrolled in an experiential learning course centered around "Food Equity." The summit, organized every other year by the Idaho Hunger Relief Task Force, brought together representatives from the USDA, the Idaho Food Bank, and various partners addressing hunger and food insecurity in Idaho. I see an evident connection between those who grow food in our region and organizations working to ensure that those in need have access to it. Due to the time of year, only a few food producers attended, as it is often challenging to participate during or shortly after the high harvest season.
The students received a warm welcome from the summit organizers and attendees. They shared insights and findings after the summit, including the motivation to deepen their learning, collect resources to share, and draw attention to food accessibility issues within their peer communities. There was a consensus that they would have liked to hear the voices of impacted communities being discussed at the summit. Greater efforts to build understanding in this regard are always needed.
For some, the summit highlighted a significant disconnection between our food and its source. Who grows the food we eat? Gardening is one step towards addressing food insecurity, from balcony gardens, to backyard gardens, to community garden plots. Our small-scale farmers understand this connection, and most of us have at least some understanding of the work involved in growing good food, if not a profound one.
Other representatives pointed out a generational experience gap. The ability to make do and provide nutritious food by combining bulk food items like beans and grains with homegrown vegetables is challenging for households with both parents working to cover rising housing costs. Compared to the experience people had 30+ years ago, when “making do” in this way was much easier to do. Hearing some understanding about these challenges from a generational perspective was heartening.
The altruism in the room was tangible!
A deep human connection and a shared desire to address hunger and barriers to accessing food were presented and discussed. FRAC, the Food Research Assistance Center, was one of many organizations that provided critical statistics about the rising costs of food and the combined impacts of increasing housing costs. Grocery prices increased by 24% since January 2022, compared to a 3% increase between 2017 and 2020.
Representatives from various organizations compassionately noted service gaps or "cliffs" that people encounter. For example, one mother of two children who regularly used SNAP benefits became ineligible after receiving a $1 per hour raise. This put her in a position where she struggled to afford healthy food for her children.
While the summit had few food producers in attendance, I found myself at a table with most of those who were present. It reminded me of what I learned at the Harvest and Hearth Conference hosted by the Ada County Soil and Water Conservation District last February. Farmers struggle to compete with the subsidized, discounted pricing seen in grocery stores for vegetables we can grow locally. It’s hard to have a voice in these spaces and make these connections during the busiest points in the season for farmers or for our seed company.
An effort to bridge this gap.
It is important to note that there are numerous potential solutions available right now. This diagram shows federal programs that could help address this deficit. The USDA representatives at the Summit spoke about the range of federal funding opportunities available, and their goals to help encourage locally-based networking and awareness building to help connect these funds with the people who need them most.
When programs like these are not utilized, costs for healthy locally grown food are often passed on to the consumer, which is at least in part a result of an outdated Idaho attitude about self-sufficiency – many expect people to “pick themselves up by their bootstraps,” no matter how far out of balance things are, or continue to get. Accepting USDA programs that could help bridge the cost gaps is sometimes viewed as receiving a handout.
There were a number of organizations working on food relief efforts such as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program (SNAP) and the program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and other providers of multiple human services. Advocates presented the great point that every SNAP dollar spent has a community value of about $1.50, which can be used to pay for food from local farmers who are growing fresh produce. These benefits even extend to seeds in certain retail locations like the Boise Co-ops, and at the Boise Farmers Market when we are there in December and April for edible plants.
Exciting projects are underway!
This includes the work of City of Good, which has been collaborating with local farmers and chefs to provide ready-to-eat meals for those in need since the onset of the pandemic years ago. They've expanded their efforts and partnered with Global Gardens and the Idaho Food Bank to buy produce from the farmers that they were not able to sell through various distribution channels. They’ve also partnered with the Boise Farmers Market for this year's indoor market over the winter, held at the Shrine Social Club run by Duck Club Presents, which builds the TreeFort Music Festival each year. Many exciting possibilities exist for reconnecting our collective awareness of our local food system.
For us, it all begins with the seed and its abundant potential.
One tomato seed can yield a plethora of tomatoes adapted to our unique local environment. A single packet of tomato seeds can potentially produce 30 plants and enough tomatoes to fill a pantry with sauce for hundreds of meals. Saving seeds from the best-quality and first-to-ripen tomatoes provides free seeds for the next season, with plants continuing to adapt to their growing environment.
We like to say, "Local Seeds Grow Local Gardens" for a reason!