You might not be able to afford the usual Christmas roast this year.
According to the USDA, beef prices in the U.S. are up nearly 10 percent this year over last. And it’s not just in the U.S. Distribution and other supply chain problems have led to severe price inflation for produce in Beijing, where a pound of lettuce now costs as much as a pound of pork. China’s agriculture ministry announced it would crack down on vegetable hoarding, which has worsened shortages. U.K. hogs are being culled by the tens of thousands, as transport drivers are few and far between.
My patients are worried about coming U.S. scarcities and price spikes because of supply chain problems. Some of my patients are stockpiling toilet paper, filling pantries with green beans and flour, and stocking their freezers full of chicken.
I don’t blame my patients. The U.S. food supply chain is an invisible maze of manufacturing, transportation, and logistics. It is also broken.
The average fast-food hamburger is assembled from at least six countries before it winds up as a cheap patty at your drive-thru. We effectively throw away 1/3 of food grown. The issues that crippled food processing, distribution, and labor and created high demand during the early days of the pandemic threaten to do so again.
But things are looking up in neighborhoods where people have the space to plant gardens, including community gardens. People are digging up their sweet potatoes, braiding their onions and garlic for storage, and even filling root cellars with potatoes, winter squash and cauliflower heads. Gardeners have already canned their tomatoes, made preserves of the stone fruit harvest, and dried their extra chilies. Many people are planning their gardens for next Spring.
A few foods not being stored: fresh lettuce, spinach, radishes, and fresh herbs. Why? Because they don’t store well (except dried herbs); they taste best when fresh; they’re still inexpensive, and they’re drop-dead easy to grow.
Why is growing your own a supply chain solution? Can it make up for the 55 percent of the fresh fruit and 32 percent of the vegetables we import each year while sending nearly one-quarter of the food we produce overseas?
More Americans than ever are gardeners— 63 million strong in 2020, including 20 million newbies, many of whom are avid indoor gardeners. They grow what they like to eat and share. In one study, community gardeners reduced their seasonal grocery cost by $436 in plots as small as 100 square feet.
Even in winter, a little bit of grocery help might be as close as your windowsill, cold frame, hydroponic tower, bay window, or backyard.
Growing more of your own food has other benefits. Gardening improves food security and appears to reduce the chance of dementia. In contrast, food insecurity makes it less likely that people will take their medications. It also increases the likelihood of depression in men and women, and of hospital admission for diabetics. It doubles the likelihood of both malnutrition and being overweight, especially in women.
Gardening might also help blunt the expected OMicron variant surge. A recent study in Nature Sustainability showed higher COVID-19 rates in less green (i.e., poorer and more urban, with fewer parks, trees, and gardens) neighborhoods.
Do we need individual gardeners to grow? Couldn’t farmers’ markets and small farmers fill the supply chain gap?
Farmers’ markets had their strongest ever sales in 2020, and they might even have been higher in 2021. But revenues in 2014, according to USDA, were about $1 billion, while supermarket food sales were about $447 billion (2018). Farmers’ markets, even when beefed up, are barely a wrinkle in a supply chain’s time.
What about the boring factor? Local growing is minimally diverse. Few locales in the U.S. can grow avocados or citrus; fewer still can grow coffee or sugar. Most of the corn grown in the U.S. goes for animal feed and ethanol, not for cornbread, never mind sweet corn.
But perfect is the enemy of good. Individuals do not need to grow everything they eat.
For too long have gardeners allowed our food supply to be dependent on mysterious logistics. We have criminally allowed our own food growing capacity to be displaced. Growing something you eat and trading with people who grow what you don’t are ways to be less reliant on Big Food and its failed connections and also to help your neighbors.
We have the opportunity to subvert the dominant supply chain. Local gardens and gardeners should be at the center of a new, three-part food supply chain — grow, share, eat.
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