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War-Era Victory Gardens Make a Comeback

This version provides fresh fruits and vegetables to neighbors without access

backyard with fenced in vegetable and flower garden planted in raised beds

Gay Bumgarner / Alamy Stock Photo

En español | Eve Greenfield has been growing vegetables for more than a decade. During the 2020 pandemic growing season, Greenfield, 52, built several raised beds in her Chicago backyard and filled them with vegetables like kale, tomatoes, peppers and zucchini.

"I threw myself into gardening as a way to keep from obsessing about everything that was going on in the world,” she recalls.

Before long, Greenfield was harvesting more fresh produce than she needed. Her solution: Set up a table at Drake Gardens, a local community garden space, with a handwritten “free vegetables” sign and encourage neighbors in need to take the produce for their families.

Other local gardeners also contributed produce from their pandemic Victory Gardens. The makeshift produce stand operated every Saturday morning from July through October and handed out up to 60 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables each week.

"I said, ‘If Victory Gardens could grow such a huge proportion of our foods during World War II, why couldn't we do that again?'” she says.

Eve Greenfield giving away free produce

Courtesy Eve Greenfield

Eve Greenfield gave away the extra vegetables grown in her garden.

Victory Gardens 2.0

Gardening has been more popular than ever during the pandemic. A new report from the National Gardening Association found that 18 million Americans started gardening in 2020 and food gardening was the fastest growing gardening segment. On Instagram, the hashtag #victorygarden has been used on 146,194 posts (and counting).

As the interest in gardening has grown, so too has the demand for food. The pandemic led to a spike in food insecurity with 42 million Americans expected to experience a lack of consistent access to food in 2021, according to Feeding America.

In 2020, the National Garden Bureau encouraged a Victory Gardens 2.0 movement to urge more people to grow their own food. The efforts were successful during WWII when an estimated 20 million Victory Gardens, planted in backyards and on fire escapes and rooftops, produced 40 percent of all of the fresh vegetables consumed in the United States.

Unlike Victory Garden programs launched during the war efforts, however, modern Victory Gardens are not part of a national gardening program. Instead, gardeners are engaged in grassroots efforts to increase their own food security and help their neighbors.

“Gardens are a wonderful strategy to increase community-based food security,” says Rose Hayden-Smith, food historian and author of Sowing the Seeds of Victory: American Gardening Programs of World War I. “Small contributions [from individual gardeners] in the collective can have an enormous impact."

National movement, local produce

Eve Greenfield's victory garden

Courtesy Eve Greenfield

Eve Greenfield makes good use of her available garden space.

Victory Gardens have also emerged as a popular option for those who want access to fresh produce while cutting down on trips to the supermarket. At the start of the pandemic, 73 percent of Americans were shopping less and more than one-third were eating less produce and more processed foods, according to C+R Research.

"A good, productive garden produces a tremendous amount of food,” says Dave Whitinger, executive director of the National Gardening Association. “When you're growing [vegetables] at home, you don't have to buy them from the store."

Novella Carpenter, adjunct professor of urban farming at University of San Francisco and worker/owner at BioFuel Oasis, an urban farm store in Berkeley, California, has witnessed communities coming together around gardening.

"There are a lot of tables popping up in the community with free vegetables,” she says. “Gardening makes you want to share."

In addition to giveaway tables, Carpenter has noted an uptick in the number of “crop swaps” where gardeners trade seeds, root cuttings and vegetables from their gardens. This builds a sense of community and the events help gardeners access fresh produce and add diversity to their diets — all thanks to local gardeners.

Gardeners who grow more produce in their Victory Gardens than their families need can donate the excess. Hayden-Smith suggests calling local or regional food banks and church food pantries to ask about guidelines for donating fresh produce. Carpenter encourages gardeners to start plant sales and crop swaps to get more fresh food into local communities.

Greenfield has big plans for her garden this year. She purchased extra seeds and plans to grow (and give away) even more fresh produce this season — and she is encouraging others to do the same. Several members of her local gardening group, which grew from 400 to 1,300 members during the pandemic, have agreed to “grow a row” and donate the produce to help fight hunger.

"Planting vegetables in a little corner of your yard can determine whether someone in your community gets fresh produce or not,” she says. “We had a lot of repeat visitors [last year], and I like to think that a few families in our community got a lot of fresh food thanks to our Victory Gardens."

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Jodi Helmer is a contributing writer who covers gardening, health and the environment. She has also written for Scientific American, National Geographic Traveler and NPR.

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