(202) 709-6225‬ cooperativegardens@gmail.com

18 million small diverse vegetable gardens with hens in the yard for egg production, and fruit trees growing throughout communities. Many of our elders and ancestors accomplished this in the United States in 1943, to self sustain and “boost morale” during WWI and WWII. Now we are gardening to cultivate our own sense of security in much different uncertain times. We are facing multiple global health threats, COVID 19 the most immediate, but climate-related disasters have increased and together form multiple disasters to prepare for.  

Headlines increasingly warn about food shortages caused by COVID 19… and that billions more dollars are needed to make sure people are able to have meat, dairy, grain, fruits, vegetables… promoting the sense that there is “nothing we can do.” These headlines–intentionally or not–create a sense of dependence on, and demand for, something with an unnecessarily limited supply. We are not helpless to change the trajectory of our community and individual health. 

The Cooperative Gardens Commission (CGC) is part of a movement that encourages people to cultivate food security that can be sustained. We learn from people who have cultivated gardening know-how from years of practice, and sometimes generations of lessons learned. We learn from the work of initial educators like George Washington Carver of the Tuskegee Institute who, in 1942, was promoting Nature’s Garden for Victory and Peace. We learn from BIPOC-led and intersectional farmers who cultivate cultural resilience as well as regenerative agriculture, and train others. We learn from countless excellent food education programs across the country. We learn from each other that empowering people to cultivate their own food really will make a difference for the health and survival of people and communities. 

Hundreds of volunteers from across the United States and Canada make up the Cooperative Gardens Commission, working as a collective to facilitate sharing of resources — including seeds, soil, equipment, labor, land, and knowledge. We are collectively working towards sustainable food security for all people, and for us that means centering the voices of the historically oppressed. We are farmers, gardeners, activists, and organizers. We believe that by increasing local food production we can help cultivate sustainable community power and resilience.

Just 4 months ago–before 38 million Americans were counted among the ranks of the unemployed — people were a working part of the highly efficient, and subsidized-therefore-affordable food system. Since then it seems the main headlines about food are concerned with feeding “people in need,” and focusing billions of dollars on maintaining our food system as it was before it was completely altered. Efficient supply lines bear a high cost to life to keep food as affordable as $1.98 for a quarter gallon of milk, $2.98 for a dozen eggs, and $0.33 for a cucumber. The “Buy One Get Two Free” deals on chicken breasts, beef and pork cuts are all part of a system so exploitative that it requires thousands and thousands of workers to do their jobs in close quarters, with schedules so demanding it’s difficult to get a bathroom break. These working circumstances became hotspots for the spread of COVID-19, causing meat packing plant closures, and putting the lives of underpaid workers —workers we now call essential — at direct risk. Thousands of livestock animals are being euthanized each day. The exploitative side of our collective food system is not one people are proud to talk about, let alone acknowledge, because no one wants to see or admit that the system we still depend on (by and large) to live hurts others to such a terrible extent. 

Like climate change, food insecurity is tied to our society and our economic systems, evident in the choice to NOT invest in communities of color and many poor white communities. This is demonstrated by store chains that choose to locate based on a customer type that can afford marked up premium produce (some subsidized, some not). This can be seen in physical maps of cities and rural areas where the nearest grocery store is difficult to access without a car, and/or stocked with unhealthy food options  — areas highly populated with fast food chains. Such areas are often referred to inaccurately as food deserts, argues by Karen Washington in an interview with the Guardian. The term “deserts” makes it seem as though there were no options, that these places are devoid of possibility. Washington refers to these areas and this systemic practice as food apartheid. 

Michael Pollan (author of Omnivore’s Dilemma) has recently stated that this is the same food system that has been connected to high health costs such as hypertension, high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes. The high cost to life is clear, from cultivation to production to sale and consumption. 

US Dept of Defense - Emergency Mass Feeding
US Dept of Ag - Donated Food for Disasters
fast food coupons

Philanthropy is good, but can only address emergency situations on a small, often pre-determined scale. What is happening now is off the charts and on a systemic level. The idea that people are completely dependent on donated and sourced food through food banks and USDA programs alone–either super cheap or free and past-due-date–promotes powerlessness and seems much more costly.

The emergency food planning for our generation now looks like a coupon book arriving in the mail packed with incredible deals for local fast food from every major chain.

Food security looks like making meaningful adjustments in our efforts to address the coronavirus pandemic, while consciously working to remove some of the greatest contributing factors to climate change. We can do this by empowering the most impacted peoples, and inspiring everyone to grow their own food at whatever scale is feasible. Sustainable security will come from providing seeds, plant starts, soil, building supplies, land and water access needed to cultivate enough food for entire communities. We are collectively capable of doing this in this generation!

Written by Mary Johnson, acreativeasset@gmail.com for Cooperative Gardens Commission.

Please note: writer lives in Boise, Idaho, prices of meat and dairy may reflect efforts of many in our state to “get things back to normal, asap.”


  1. “Workers Looking to Be Rehired Face ‘a Very Long Haul’ – The ….” 21 May. 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/21/business/economy/coronavirus-unemployment-claims.html. Accessed 21 May. 2020.
  2. “Meat Plant Closures Mean Pigs Are Gassed or Shot Instead ….” 14 May. 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/14/business/coronavirus-farmers-killing-pigs.html. Accessed 16 May. 2020.
  3.  “Key Takeaways from the IPCC Special Report on Climate ….” 8 Aug. 2019, https://unfoundation.org/blog/post/key-takeaways-from-the-ipcc-special-report-on-climate-change-and-land/. Accessed 19 May. 2020.
  4. “Food apartheid: the root of the problem with America’s groceries.” 15 May. 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/may/15/food-apartheid-food-deserts-racism-inequality-america-karen-washington-interview. Accessed 17 May. 2020.
  5. “Coronavirus Shocks US Food System – Living on Earth.” 8 May. 2020, https://loe.org/shows/segments.html?programID=20-P13-00019&segmentID=1. Accessed 26 May. 2020.