Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Policy Point Wednesday - Their Food Desert like the Garden...

You may recall from my earlier blog post, Acronym Soup in the Food Desert, that the Federal government provides nutrition assistance to needy families through the SNAP program, administered by the USDA.  What many people don't know is that SNAP dollars can be used to purchase "seeds and plants that produce food", and this small fact can make a huge difference for families living in the Food Desert.  Unfortunately, most SNAP families and retailers don't know about this aspect of the program, so they don't have the opportunity to take advantage of it.

How can food desert dwellers, who most likely live in apartment buildings, take advantage of growing their own vegetables?  Well, beyond the standard comunity garden, there are a number of ways to grow food in an urban environment.  Chicago's Green Roof Growers use sub-irrigated planters (which can be made from foodsafe buckets or even used soda bottles at very low cost)  that takes advantage of the unique urban architecture in Chicago - a nearly pest-free environment that capitalizes on our bright Midwestern sun.  In Los Angeles, the Food Chain project is building "edible walls;" vertical vegetable gardens that support and are supported by underserved urban communities.  Window Farms and Vertical Earth Gardens create hydroponic urban microfarms using recycled and easily-accessible materials.

Unfortunately, the SNAP program does not cover any materials - dirt, fertilizer, etc. - so the food desert dweller needs to be especially resourceful (suggesting to your retailer that they offer seedlings in pots large enough to grow into would be the best answer.)  Unfortunately, dirt from outside often isn't a good choice for a potted plant for a number of reasons. Soiless potting mix is preferred, but Coconut Coir, available online in compressed-brick form, is an inexpensive solution to this problem - it can be combined with Perlite or Vermiculite to make soilless potting mix, but it requires the purchase of fertilizer. Outside fertilization can be accomplished through composting plant-based kitchen waste at home, or through homemade fertilizers - one solution listed there that we use at home: we keep a couple of fish in a goldfish bowl; every time we change the water, we use the wastewater on our houseplants and vegetables - a terrific multipurpose fertilizer.

While indoor fruiting plants such as tomatoes and peppers require a seasoned gardener with a lot of experience, even a beginner can plant a cut-and-come-again pot of leafy salad greens.  A small initial investment in containers (again, used soda bottles or even a sturdy plastic baggie will work) soil, seeds, and a sunny window (or even a flourescent bulb) will offer a season's worth of salads.  Salad greens prefer a slightly acidic environment, and so will benefit from many homemade fertilizers.  If you take care when you harvest your lettuce and leave enough leaf surface, it will grow back several times (possibly indefinitely, provided it has enough light, water, and nutrients.)  a $.99 cent packet of seeds can save you big money on salad greens in the food desert!

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