Where will your food come from?.......Food Memories
My small backyard yields plenty with the use of containers.
When I think back to my childhood days, they seem like an ancient experience. Growing up in the 1970s in idyllic St. George, groceries were ordered by phone from my mother’s lifelong friend and shopkeeper Loiuse Moore every Friday morning and picked up in the evenings by my father on his way home. That list comprised the basic rice, flour, sugar, butter, saltfish, soap, peas, canned fishes, and maybe onions. My, that list sure seems meager compared to the 2 page documents we take to the supermarket these days, and it does, because we also ate so differently. Back then, my mother never cooked pasta! It was what she deemed “mere flour and water put into different shapes to fool people.
Our weekly meals consisted of mainly fish (fresh, salted and canned). A typical weekly menu consisted of ground provisions or what we call stew food, cou-cou, rice and peas with chicken gravy, soup, vegetable rice with fish, a ground provision dish (such as yam pie, breadfruit, okra slush or whatever was plentiful), with the main meat dish reserved for Sundays when you had baked chicken along with a meat gravy and meat was had from a butcher or someone who had raised and killed livestock, surely not from unknown industrial sources!
I cannot remember my mother ever buying fruit or vegetables! Why would she? Along with everyone else we knew, we kept a kitchen garden for potherbs, a small plot of land was planted with ground provision neatly hedged with peas and an abundance of fruit trees ensured there was fresh varied fruit to be consumed monthly in as many ways as there were fruits. We ate guavas in jelly, had cherries in drink, golden apples pickled, tamarind balls, stewed gooseberry, avocado salad, soursop punch, the possibilities seemed endless. And what we didn’t grow ourselves was readily gifted from neighbours and friends. Back then, food was easily accessible, fresh, tasty, cheap and plentiful!
Now fast forward 40 years …… It’s midday and I’m listening to callers on radio programs gripe about the availability and cost of vegetables, basic food items and meat. The problem is that everyone wants cheap, nutritious foods but no one wants to grow it. Food costs were the priority number 1, 2 and 3 for the reigning government in their last election campaign and continue to be a sore point for many families almost 4 years later. This is not unique to Barbados, as climate changes have wrought floods and storms followed by severe drought on farmlands worldwide in some cases totally obliterating any hopes of harvests. Staple foods such as wheat and corn which are the cornerstone of many other food products are under serious threat. This has already led to persons living in developed countries seeing an almost doubling of food prices in their stores and in instances a withdrawal of certain foods from the shelves altogether.
Over the summer, I had the pleasure of having my mother-in-law, brother and sister-in-law visit from North Carolina and Toronto respectively. For the last few years, whenever time comes for visiting folk to return home, a shopping list is carefully drafted of items to get from the supermarket. Now you may be thinking why of course, they were probably stocking up on pepper sauce, sugar cakes, tamarind balls or some such indigenous treats, but oh no folks, these lists included items such as corned beef, lamb chops, macaroni, sardines etc. I was truly alarmed! After all, don’t people travel to those said countries to shop, pack barrels and send food back home? My mother-in-law explained that she buys corned beef at USD$5.00 per can which is double what she pays here. Lamb quality at home in Toronto is considered poor in comparison to homegrown meat of the Black-belly sheep, so my sister-in-law stocks up while here. My, how times had changed abroad!
Those incidents in turn led me to think back on my years living abroad in BrooklynNY eight years ago. My average food bill was $60.00 a week, which was more than enough, and we looked forward to the summer time when we could get fresh food at the Farmers’ Market. Yet I also planted food crops in the warm months. My little garden was filled with herbs, beans, cucumbers, corn, peppers and tomatoes. My friend Yendys would visit and be equally amazed and doubtful, wondering if it was safe to grow food in the city! Well simply type up urban agriculture or backyard farming on You Tube and we see that, in that short space of time American have reverted to growing food at the local level like never seen before in recent history. Those fortunate to still own homes are digging up lawns and replacing them with fruit trees and vegetable gardens, city-dwellers are growing food in windows, fireplaces and roofs and urban hotels and restaurants now even have on site gardens to reduce food costs and ensure quality.
Now I know many of you might by now be wondering, what can all this possibly have to do with food security, and here is the thing. The World Health Organization defines food security as: having food which is easily available, accessible and ready for use. Given this, we can safely and sadly state that food security is indeed under threat. Who ever thought the day would come when persons in the Western Hemisphere would be faced with this problem?
The USA is the world’s number one producer of many of our staple foods, items such as wheat, corn, soybeans, fruits and vegetables, yet its citizens are seeing a rise in food prices, and a decline in the quality or accessibility of many foods. What does this imply for a country like ours who imports the bulk of its food? When one looks at last year’s food imports bill, the foods imported and their costs are appauling and frankly scary, especially when we consider that we can produce more of the same items here. Below is a list given by Chairman of the National Agricultural Commission, Dr. Chelston Brathwaite recently at a press conference.
For 2011, this country's food import bill soared to BDS $653 million. Of that figure, processed foods accounted for $162 million; juice concentrates $106 million; grain and cereal $93 million; dairy $53 million; alcoholic beverages $46 million; fish $29 million; nuts $28 million; fruits $26 million; oils and fats $ 24 million; fresh vegetables $23 million; beef $19 million; pork $13 million; lamb $10 million; coffee and tea six million; poultry four million; frozen vegetables three million and root crops $114, 000.
As we stand in the “fresh food” aisle of the supermarket scratching our heads over the exorbitant cost of tomatoes and peppers, we still do not consider our alternatives. And belief me there are many alternatives when we consider that Barbados is an ideal tropical island which receives an abundant 10 hours of sunlight daily and has a reliable water supply. What better way to ensure food security than to grow as much of one’s own food as is possible and by altering one’s diet to include more of what is grown at the local level? We were doing it 40 years ago, so why not now?
Why not look around for a few old containers to grow some potherbs, lettuce or Chinese cabbage? Why not plant a spinach vine along your fence or pailing? Why not plant a few tomatoes or sweet peppers in your flower garden? When they fruit, they will also add colour and appeal! Why not plant a fruit tree or two if space permits? You could also get acquainted with a few edible wild plants in your area. Many plants which we consider to be nuisances or weeds are actually just perfect for eating. I can guarantee that anywhere you go in Barbados you will find at least purslane and calaloo or bhagi. Or, why not go on a hike for local fruit and foods. I can’t tell you how many times my family has been on a walk or hike and found food along the trek, be it coconuts, sea-grapes, tamarinds or sapotes. Another great thing about such hikes, is that you can easily take cuttings or uproot young plants and herbs to add to your garden at home. Start as small or big as you are able to, just start!
Somewhere along the line, manual labour, especially of an agricultural nature has become stigmatized. To this day many of my “educated” peers are somewhat amused by the fact that I am an avid gardener/backyard farmer! Brothers, sisters, family, we must overcome this conditioning and get back to planting if we are to ensure fresh, nutrient rich food for our families and nation.
A former flower garden bed converted to food.
Written by Susan Forde.