Victory gardening during the coronavirus

How home gardeners and urban farmworkers are reacting to the pandemic

EDDIE ROSENBAUM/File

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As businesses close across the United States and thousands of workers are asked to stay home to practice social distancing, Maya Shiroyama — owner of Kitazawa Seed Company, a business in Oakland that specializes in Asian seed varieties — is working nonstop. Nurseries and seed companies like Kitazawa have been deemed essential businesses, and home gardeners are buying in bulk. In addition to the usual spring rush of gardeners buying supplies to plant seeds in the ground before it is too late in the season, the coronavirus pandemic has seen the return of victory gardens and “panic planting.” Across the country, Americans are quickly buying up supplies to have control over their own food source.

“The response has been ordering massive, massive orders,” Shiroyama said. “We have a ton of home gardeners, a lot of commercial growers — everyone is ordering. It’s very interesting. Sometimes (customers) are first-time gardeners and they’re buying $500 worth of seeds.”

Many seasoned and new home gardeners, disillusioned by the lack of products made available to them at the grocery store and worried about the danger posed by entering a densely populated space, have resorted to growing their own food in their backyard. Many gardeners call this movement victory gardening, or “victory gardening 2.0,” in reference to the gardens planted during World War I and World War II to provide an at-home food source in a time of scarcity. At its high point during World War II, 40% of produce was grown in victory gardens.

Some have taken issue with the term “victory garden” because of its connection to a period during which Japanese American farm workers were forced off of their land, while others object to alluding to the world wars at all.

 “Why are we calling it a victory?” Shiroyama asked. “We don’t have a victory over this situation. We haven’t conquered anything. It’s not a World War II issue or anything, it just doesn’t make any sense.”

Wanda Stewart, who runs the Hoover Hawks’ Victory Garden at Hoover Elementary School in Oakland, similarly separates the label of “victory garden” from any association with World War II but still prefers the term. According to Stewart, the name of the Hoover Elementary garden was ultimately voted on by students, but it came about in reference to her late mentor, Victory Lee, an urban farmer who founded the Victory Garden Foundation.

“Victory is a powerful thing, and especially when you’re at the bottom and you claim victory, that’s huge,” Stewart said.

On April 10, more than 100 individuals interested in home gardening joined an online panel discussion, which was led by urban and suburban farmers and organizers scattered across the United States who spoke about how they are responding to COVID-19 and why food sovereignty is more important than ever. For many of these gardeners, victory gardening was a norm before the outbreak of the disease.

Stewart, who was featured on the panel, spoke about her garden at Hoover Elementary. She also discussed growing her own food at her Berkeley residence, which she calls Obsidian Farm — land that features hundreds of vegetables and 20 chickens in a side yard.

Thrilled that gardeners are beginning to create their own victory gardens in their backyards, Stewart said that these gardens are not only “nice to have” but essential, especially in schools. She recalled that when she began the Hoover Hawks’ Victory Garden, the students she met were “authentically hungry.”

The victory garden not only provided an enriching activity for the students but generated more access to healthy food. On the last day of school before the students were dismissed to practice social distancing, they left with giant bags of vegetables that they had grown themselves. 

“I love that … (when people ask the students), ‘What did you do on the day that they closed schools for the virus,’ the Hoover kids are gonna say, ‘We picked all the collard greens we could grow and we took them home.’ When you see the pictures that were taken on that day, they’re pure, celebratory and full of sunshine,” Stewart said.

Stewart, however, is worried about access to food as the pandemic progresses and hopes that her students will share their knowledge at home so they can grow vegetables in their own backyards. For students already suffering from food insecurity, the additional disadvantages posed by COVID-19 present an even greater concern.

“Once chaos gets started,” Stewart said, “It’s not (about) toilet paper. It’s when there’s no food and not enough food.”

“Once chaos gets started, it’s not (about) toilet paper. It’s when there’s no food and not enough food.” — Wanda Stewart

According to Stewart, gaining control over one’s own food source by planting in one’s own backyard will help combat the uncertainty of the pandemic.

Stewart also stressed the importance of coming together as a community during times of struggle. After 20 years of farming in her backyard, Stewart said she has created long-lasting relationships with her neighbors and regularly shares her crops with them. She remarked that these relationships are more important than ever.

“Last week,” Stewart said, “I came out and somebody had taken a bag, written ‘free’ on it, filled it with tortillas from Trader Joe’s and put it out in the front of my house. And the thing was, it wasn’t for me. It was put there for the community like you would put little libraries that people have in front of their homes.”

At UC Berkeley, students remaining on campus have similarly shared their knowledge and supplies to support one another during the pandemic. Annika Levaggi and Dana Price, who both help run gardens for Cal Dining at Clark Kerr Campus and Brown’s California Cafe, co-created a graphic that they distributed among their classmates with tips on how to garden from home. Previously, the gardens had open hours for students to plant, but these hours had to be discontinued for the sake of social distancing.

In addition to giving advice on what to grow, the graphic also advertises free vegetable plant starters for students to pick up from the Clark Kerr garden to begin their own produce plots. The plant starters line Price’s windowsill while they wait for the starters to be ready to be picked up and planted. By the end of next week, they hope the starters will be ready for students to pick up. 

“My coworker, Dana Price, came up with the idea of providing free vegetable starts for people, and with that, wanting to spread the knowledge of how you can actually care for those plants, given different spatial limitations that people have,” Levaggi said.

Price and Levaggi aren’t the only students supporting the Berkeley community through the pandemic. According to Stewart, these actions are in line with what she has experienced from UC Berkeley students, particularly those who are part of the Student Environmental Resource Center, or SERC, and Engineers for a Sustainable World. 

These student organizations have helped Stewart maintain the victory garden at Hoover Elementary. She recalled that Dante Gonzales, the team leader of Carbon Crew at the SERC, even joined in on harvesting collard greens with the Hoover Elementary students on the last day of school before its shutdown and distributed them to other Berkeley students.

“If anything comes out of this that is positive, it’s a strengthened sense of community.” Levaggi said. “Which, to me, is really the foundation of food sovereignty. Early on, I read an article that was published in The New York Times that was talking about victory gardens in World War II … and that’s kind of the idea that inspired me to supply fresh vegetable starts. … It can be really dangerous for a lot of folks to go to the grocery store, and food security is becoming an even larger issue. How can we think about sustainability and supporting our community’s basic needs on a really local level?”

Contact Marina Newman at [email protected].