You’ve seen the news: vegetable seeds are selling out. All that quarantine ennui has combined with anxiety about the gaps on supermarket shelves to create a whole new population of city farmers in backyards and windowsills across America. And everyone from the Los Angeles Times to Forbes to CBS has dubbed these brand new beds of beets and broccoli "COVID-19 Victory Gardens." But what war is your pot of basil fighting? This episode, historian Anastasia Day helps us explore the history of urban gardening movements—and shatter some of the nostalgic myths about those original World War II-era Victory Gardens. One thing is true: in 1943, more than 43 percent of the fresh produce eaten by all Americans came from Victory Gardens. So, can a combination of vegetable patches, community gardens, and urban farms help feed cities today? Or is growing food in the city just a feel-good distraction from the bigger problems in our food system? And does the hype about high-tech vertical farms live up to environmental and economic reality? Listen in as farmers and activists Leah Penniman and Tepfirah Rushdan, food writer Tamar Haspel, and researchers Neil Mattson and Raychel Santo help us dig in to the science on urban agriculture, and harvest some answers—as well as a tomato or two.
LEFT: "War gardens over the top. The seeds of victory insure the fruits of peace," Maginel Wright Enright, National War Garden Commission, 1919 (Library of Congress). RIGHT: "War gardens for victory—Grow vitamins at your kitchen door," lithographed by the Stecher-Traung Lithograph Corporation, Rochester, New York, between 1939 and 1945 (Library of Congress).
Anastasia Day is a Ph.D. candidate in Capitalism, Technology, and Culture at the University of Delaware, where she studies home food production in the twentieth century. You can read more about her work at her blog, The Historian in the Garden.
Leah Penniman is a food sovereignty activist and the co-director and farm manager at Soul Fire Farm in New York State. Her book, Farming While Black, is a comprehensive guide for African-heritage growers to reclaim their dignity as agriculturists and for all farmers to understand the distinct, technical contributions of African-heritage people to sustainable agriculture, as well as a hands-on manual for all aspects of small-scale farming.
Tepfirah Rushdan is co-director of Keep Growing Detroit, a nonprofit organization dedicated to food sovereignty. A long-time activist, Rushdan is involved in vacant land remediation, developing conservation skills in youth, farming training programs, and resiliency research.
Raychel Santo is a senior research program coordinator at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, where she studies urban agriculture, local food policy, and the relationship between diet and climate change. We discussed her 2016 paper, “Vacant Lots to Vibrant Plots: A Review of the Benefits and Limitations of Urban Agriculture.”
Neil Mattson is an associate professor at the Cornell School of Integrative Plant Science. His research focuses on the influence of environmental factors and cultural practices on greenhouse crops, and he is currently midway through a National Science Foundation-funded study looking at the environmental and economic implications of urban agriculture in greenhouses and vertical farms.
Tamar Haspel is a James Beard Award-winning freelance writer and columnist at The Washington Post. Her writing centers around food supply issues, including biotech, food additives, antibiotics, organics, nutrition, and food policy.
While making this episode, we also talked with historian and University of California extension advisor Rose Hayden-Smith to learn more about the Victory Gardens' precursors: the Liberty Gardens of World War I. She has documented this history in her book, Sowing the Seeds of Victory: American Gardening Programs of World War I.
While making this episode, we also talked with UC Berkeley socio-economist Robin Marsh about small-scale and urban farming in the Global South. Her research spans international agriculture and rural development.
"Oswego, New York. A citizen working on Sunday morning in the victory garden he has made on the edge of the street." Photograph by Marjory Collins, June 1943. (Library of Congress)