I was reading the comments that followed an article on “The New Faces of Poverty,” a while back and came across the common suggestion that people on food stamps should grow their own food and get off assistance. Actually, it was a lot less polite than that, but the level of animosity found in those comments is a topic for another day. Even the government supports this fallacy. Seeds and vegetable plants are allowable purchases under the basic food program.
But “grow your own food” as a solution makes me laugh. Because I do grow all our family’s vegetables, raise chickens for eggs and can our own applesauce and jams. And yet I’m on food stamps. And more important, I know from experience this is not a solution that will work for most people.
Here’s the reality: Raising vegetables has costs, even in its cheapest form. I farm my neighbor’s yard—a garden that encompasses about a third of an acre. She gets all the produce she wants and free labor to keep a large piece of land cleared and attractive. I keep the rest of what I grow.
We split the costs. My neighbor pays for the water and the property taxes, and I cover everything else: fertilizer, slug-bait, seeds, other pest-control products as needed, tools and items such as stakes and fencing. Even using the cheapest methods possible and an already established garden, the garden still requires money. Someone without a ready-made plot would need to make a sizeable investment to be successful.
I grow and save most of my own seed, but some items, like seed potatoes, must be purchased. I start all my own plants. In the spring, seedlings cover every surface in the house until my children complain about Chia furniture. I use manure collected from my two goats and chickens for compost and fertilizer and scrounge leaves and grass clippings from my neighbors. I use row-cover to extend the seasons and save money on pesticides. I re-use and recycle everything. My husband is a wizard at repairing tools and building supports. Even with that, I estimate I spend at least $80 a season.
In return, I grow all the vegetables we need in fall and summer, and most of what we need in spring and winter. I also manage to bring produce to the food bank and my friends and neighbors (they now flee when they see me approaching with bags.) According to the USDA, using 2008 data, it costs $2 to $2.50 per day to meet individual dietary guidelines for vegetables (2.5 cups per day—an amount only my goats can manage!). That means an $8 to $10 expense for a family of four. By those numbers, I save us a lot of money: $80 a year versus around $3,000.
But those vegetables are still a tiny percentage of an overall budget. And in my area, produce is plentiful and cheap if you buy in season.
The true cost of raising vegetables is time. During the growing season, I spend hours each day tending the garden. It’s hard, physical work. And unlike buying food at the grocery store, harvesting, cleaning and preparing fresh vegetables takes enormous amounts of time. Real vegetable come covered with real dirt. Peas don’t come in big bags. They come five or six to a pod. Picking and shelling enough for a meal takes a long time (longer if you make your children do it!). And you don’t just get enough produce for a meal—when a crop is ready, it’s all ready, which means you have to pick, clean, process and preserve it right then.
Most people in financial trouble don’t have that kind of time. They are too busy working, job hunting, taking classes or dealing with the problems that caused them to stumble in the first place. Most don’t own homes where a garden is feasible. Few have time to gain the necessary knowledge.
And yes, they could plant a few tomato plants on their patios or keep some lettuce on their windowsills. Maybe pot some herbs on their decks. Or take a bus over to a P-patch garden and grow a few plants. It’s healthy. It’s fun. But it won’t bring in enough food to remove the need for assistance. Whoever suggests poor people can grow their way out of poverty is sprouting nonsense.