Growing a Vegetable Garden Might Be Just What You Need During the Coronavirus Crisis
Stefanie Wal April 3, 2020
It’s been a few weeks since the COVID-19 pandemic halted the world, forcing us to retreat into our homes and forgo physical social contact—and it doesn’t look like we’ll be freed any time soon. Though grocery stores are open for business, authorities from governors to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have asked that we minimize our outings into the public world, which got us thinking: what better time to plant your own vegetable garden? Not only could this help you skip the trip to the store once the produce comes in, but it also could provide some much-needed stress relief. We asked some gardening experts for tips and tricks to design a garden and grow produce in your backyard or patio.
Designing a Garden
Before you dive in with your trowel and seeds, you’ll want to spend some time designing your garden’s layout. Start by observing how much sunlight is in your yard or patio. “Consider where the vegetable garden is going. It should go in the sunniest spot, as most vegetables require lots of direct sun,” says landscape designer Kathryn Herman. But don’t fret if you have a little bit of shade. “Some vegetables, like salad greens, can take a small amount of shade,” says landscape designer Deborah Nevins.
When it comes to designing a layout, keep in mind that gardens take work. You’ll need to be out there watering, weeding, and harvesting, so you’ll want to leave areas between your beds where you can tread safely. “We like making the garden beds easy to access, so a three-foot-wide by eight-foot-long bed with space on either side allows circulation to get to both sides,” says Herman. “The space on either side of the bed can be lawn, or it can be gravel, or it can be a paved surface.”
And if you don’t have a full yard, don’t worry—there are plenty of ways to make do with a small space like a patio, a window box, or even a section of your driveway. “Plant in containers or a small raised bed,” says Tara Nolan, author of Gardening Your Front Yard and co-owner of Savvy Gardening. “You just need to make sure the space gets at least six to eight hours of sunlight a day. There are many compact plant varieties that are perfect for small spaces. Look for words like mini, dwarf, or patio on seed packets.”
Close up of basket of fresh vegetables on garden soil. Cool weather crops include carrots and other root veggies. Photo: Getty Images/Aleksander Rubtsov
Choosing What to Plant
There’s quite a variety of produce to choose from for your vegetable garden, and the good news for beginners is that it’s relatively easy to grow the vast majority of them. “Plants are really simple, especially vegetable plants,” says Shelby DeVore, founder of homesteading website Farminence. “There are two main types of vegetable plants that are suitable for first-time gardeners: fruit crops like tomatoes and cucumbers, and vegetative crops that are grown for their leaves, like spinach and lettuce.”
To help you narrow down your selection, consider the size of your garden—and the colors you want to see. “There is a large variety of tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and lettuces that come in many forms and colors, which can add another level of interest to the garden,” says Herman. “These vegetables are suitable for a smaller bed, while vegetables like squash, cucumbers, and melons require more space to spread out.”
Something else to think about: Some plants grow better during different times of year. “Cool-weather crops like peas; root veggies like beets and carrots; and members of the Brassica genus, like cabbage, kale, and brussels sprouts, can be sown in early spring, while the heat-lovers like tomatoes, melons, and cucumbers are planted after all threat of frost has passed,” says Nolan. “Google your region and the area’s frost-free date, which will help you know when to plant.”
And, of course, grow what you want to eat! “Red Russian kale is one of my personal favorites,” says designer Christopher Spitzmiller. “It’s easy to grow and has nearly flat leaves that are easy to roll up and cut into small coleslaw-like pieces that make a great salad all summer and into the early winter.”
Plants Growing At Vegetable Garden. Make sure to research your region to know when to plant certain seeds. Photo: Getty Images/Ivana Drozdov
Follow these tips from our experts and you’ll be on your way to self-grown fresh produce in no time!
1. Consider starting your garden indoors if it’s still cold out
Although it’s just about the right time of year to get outdoors, you can start your garden inside if you’re in a colder climate. “We have lots of seeds started under grow lights in our garage,” says Spitzmiller. “We’ve started all sorts of lettuces, cabbages, and arugula.”
2. Make sure you’re using good soil
When it comes to gardening, it’s crucial to have healthy soil for robust growth. “You have to determine the quality of your soil regarding nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, and you need to see if the soil drains well,” says Nevins. And don’t forget fertilizer! “Composted manure can be worked in to help add organic matter into the soil,” says Herman.
3. Check on them daily
Pay attention to your plants, as their physical appearance can alert you to any issues they might have. “Plants that aren’t getting enough water will be droopy, but most people know that,” says DeVore. “They’ll also let you know if they have a disease or nutritional issue. Check the leaves for yellow or brown spots. Wilted, yellow, purple, or curled leaves can be a sign that something is wrong.”
4. Don’t get discouraged
“First-timers should know that even the most experienced gardeners can have issues, and not to be discouraged,” says Nolan. “Sometimes issues like pests, or even excessive rain, can affect crops. The key is to figure out what went wrong and how you can mitigate those circumstances next time.”
10 Perennials That’ll Add Tons of Color to Your Garden
Plant these sun lovers for long-lasting color that returns every year
By Arricca Sansone March 31, 2020
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Got sun? Perennials that thrive in full sun, considered 6 or more hours per day, provide long-lasting color to gardens or containers on your deck, patio or balcony. Best of all, they come back every year so you’ll get more bang for your buck! For starters, read the plant tag or description to learn if a plant will survive in your USDA Hardiness zone (find yours here). Dig a hole about twice the size of the pot, then set it in the ground or pot at the same level it was in the container. Water thoroughly, and keep an eye on it during dry spells. Even drought-tolerant plants need TLC the first season, so don’t ignore them and let them dry out. Then be patient! Perennials may not look like they’re doing much for the first season or two. In fact, there’s a saying that perennials crawl the first year, walk the second, and take off running the third season in the ground.
Here are a few of our favorite hardy perennials for full sun:
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Catmint has fuzzy foliage and purple-blue flower spikes that last for several weeks in mid-summer. It has a pleasantly spicy, minty scent when you brush against it. Newer types keep a nice, mounded shape.
Varieties to try: Cat’s Meow, Walker’s Low
2 Bee Balm
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This pollinator favorite comes in shades of pinks, purples, and reds. The fringed, spikey flowers are heat and cold-tolerant and look best planted in huge swaths. New types are more disease-resistant.
Varieties to try: Pardon My Lavender, Leading Lady Plum
3 Black-eyed Susan
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They’re sturdy, have a long bloom time, and look like happy, smiling faces. What other reasons do you need to plant this cheery plant? They bloom from mid-summer to fall. Read the tag because some are perennial, while others only last two years (biennial) so they’re treated as annuals and replanted every year.
Varieties to try: American Gold Rush, Indian Summer
4 False Indigo
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False indigo, also known as baptisia, has beautiful spires of indigo blue, pink, yellow or white flowers, followed by bushy seedpods in the fall. Pollinators of all types love it, too!
Varieties to try: Decadence Cherries Jubilee, Twilight Prairieblues
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Daylilies don’t need coddled, so they’re a good choice if you’re a hands-off kind of gardener. They bloom for just one day (as the name suggests) but in great numbers. In a few years, you’ll have enough to divide them and plant elsewhere in your garden.
Varieties to try: Rainbow Rhythm Nosferatu, Romantic Returns
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With hundreds of varieties in many different forms, sedum has fleshy leaves to help it survive dry spells. Sedum comes in low-growing or creeping types as well as more upright forms, so you’ll find one for every garden setting.
Varieties to try: Lemon Coral, Firecracker
7 Balloon Flower
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This adorable perennial has plump, round buds that burst into star-shaped blue flowers. It blooms mid-summer for several weeks.
Varieties to try: Fuji, Astra Pink
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Penstemon, also called beardtongue, has stately upright spikes of deep pink or purple flowers with dark green or burgundy leaves. The pretty foliage is bright and colorful all season long after the tubular-shaped flowers fade.
Varieties to try: Midnight Masquerade, Blackbeard
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With vibrant colors in every shade of the rainbow, coneflowers are reliable performers. They range in height from about 12 to 36 inches tall. Read the plant tag to see how tall each variety gets so you’ll know if it’s best in the back, middle or front of the border.
Coronavirus is a fast-forward version of what will happen with climate change
Ryan Cooper, The Week
The United States will shortly become the epicenter of the novel coronavirus pandemic, if it isn’t already. At time of writing some 60,653 American cases have been confirmed, and 784 people have died. It’s going to get much, much worse before it gets better — especially if President Trump goes ahead with his evident plan to open the country back up before the virus is controlled.
It’s very hard to get one’s mind around the scale of the developing calamity. But it also provides an important window into a potential future of unchecked climate change. The coronavirus pandemic is a warp-speed tutorial in what will happen if we don’t get our act together and slash greenhouse gas emissions.
The skyrocketing U.S. number of coronavirus cases and deaths is the direct consequence of President Trump’s previous inattention and delay months ago. By late December it was clear there was a major risk the virus was going to get out of China, yet Trump didn’t set up pre-emptive containment measures. He didn’t set up testing or quarantine facilities, and didn’t even shut down commercial travel from China until January 31, which was almost certainly already too late — and in any case his administration bungled the transportation of 14 infected Americans so badly that they may have seeded several outbreaks on their own.
As a result, the virus has been spreading in the wild in the U.S. since late January or early February, and the entire time Trump has dragged his feet on setting up an all-out response. He was slow to activate the Army Corps of Engineers, slow to get behind economic rescue plans, and slow to take steps to ramp up the production of tests. To this day he refuses to actually invoke the Defense Production Act to secure needed supplies of ventilators and other medical equipment, leading to chaos as states and foreign countries desperately bid against each other for what remains. Now hospitals are starting to be overwhelmed across the country, and the corpses are piling up.
This is what an uncontrolled, exponentially-accelerating crisis looks like on the ground: first slow, then all at once. Past procrastination and dithering means that once the seriousness of what is happening is undeniable, the worst effects can only be mitigated, not avoided.
Climate change is going to be exactly like this, only on a much longer time scale. Decades have passed with greenhouse gas emissions rising steadily, yet so far the carnage has been relatively modest. The sea level keeps inching up, biological systems are increasingly stressed, ordinary weather patterns keep getting more and more odd, and extreme weather disasters keep getting worse and worse, but so far most human societies have not been seriously threatened.
Absent gargantuan efforts across the world to wrench down emissions, in a couple decades that is going to change very fast. Normal weather patterns will simply not happen anymore. Some areas will suffer devastating drought, and others heavy precipitation — and some places, like California, will swing wildly between the two. Sea level rise will begin to swallow cities where hundreds of millions of people live. Extreme weather disasters — floods, tornado outbreaks, hurricanes, dust storms, and so on — will obliterate crops and crush cities around the world. Many biological systems will break completely, and food sources for billions of people will vanish. Hundreds of millions of refugees will stream around the world.
Indeed, there might well be additional outbreaks of pandemic diseases. Ancient pathogens are still alive in the Siberian permafrost, including anthrax, and possibly smallpox. As the permafrost melts, these could break out and infect a human population with no resistance.
All that is exceptionally grim. However, there may be a glimmer of hope in the response to this coronavirus epidemic. Outside of the United States and Brazil, virtually every country has thrown aside traditional political worries and attacked the pandemic with unprecedented speed and aggression. Concerns about national deficits, printing money, or increasing welfare benefits have evaporated in the face of a society-wide threat. Countries are outright nationalizingwhole industries at the drop of a hat. Even in the U.S., after a primary season dominated by moronic “how are you going to pay for that?” concerns, Congress is casually debating a $2 trillion economic rescue package.
What we see is that when sufficiently motivated, countries really can transform themselves practically overnight. Whole continents have gone into emergency lockdown with as few people working as possible. Emissions are tanking with little transportation or production happening. The air around cities like Los Angeles is amazingly clear with so few pollution-spewing cars on the road.
A bold, world-wide climate policy would not be like the coronavirus response in the details or objectives, but the scale is about right. We need to radically transform our systems of manufacturing, energy, agriculture, and transportation, and it needs to happen as soon as possible. If we can completely overhaul whole countries in a matter of days to fight off a pandemic, we could do the same thing to forestall disastrous climate change. It’s just a question of political will.
It’s Time to Quarantine the Crazy Coming Out of the White House
Why even bother tuning in when all we get are unproven theories about left-wing conspiracies and unproven COVID-19 treatments?
By Charles P. Pierce March 19, 2020
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The now-daily gathering of the Coronavirus SuperFriends on Thursday took the express bus to Crazytown, perhaps never to return. This is because they insist on telling El Caudillo del Mar-A-Lago where the briefing is and at what time it will be held. Can’t someone just lie to him about all that? First, out of the clear blue nowhere, the president* began promoting the use of the anti-malarial drug chloroquine as a possible therapeutic for COVID-19. This came as some surprise to the Food and Drug Administration, whose director was also on the dais today. From Bloomberg:
The drug, chloroquine, hasn’t yet been approved for treatment of Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. While it’s been available for decades for malaria, it’s not clear whether it will work against the new illness. A March 10 review of existing research found that there’s little solid proof one way or the other. During an at-times-confusing White House press conference, Trump said that chloroquine was approved for use and that he wanted to “remove every barrier” to test more drugs against Covid-19 and “allow many more Americans to access drugs that have shown really good promise.” “Normally the FDA would take a long time to approve something like that, and it’s — it was approved very, very quickly and it’s now approved by prescription,” Trump said. An FDA spokesperson said the drug had not been approved for use in Covid-19 patients. However, U.S. doctors are legally able to prescribe a drug for any illness or condition they think is medically appropriate.
At Thursday’s press conference, Trump and FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn appeared to differ substantially about the status of the drugs being tested. Trump said chloroquine had been approved and could be given to patients by doctors with a prescription. “It’s been around for a long time, so we know that if things don’t go as planned it’s not going to kill anybody,” Trump said. Shortly thereafter, Hahn said that use of the drug would be in a controlled trial to find out whether or not it works, and if so, what dose would be safe and effective. “We want to do that in a setting of a clinical trial,” Hahn said.
Good god, get the hook.
But the presser didn’t go zooming off the rails until a “reporter” named Chanel Rion from One America News, the outlet that the president* watches when Fox News gets too Chomsky for him, chimed in from the izonkosphere:
On that note, major left-wing media, including some in this room, have teamed up with Chinese Communist Party narratives and they’re claiming you’re a racist for making these claims about Chinese virus. Is it alarming that major media who just oppose you are consistently siding with foreign state propaganda, Islamic radicals, and Latin gangs and cartels, and they work right here in the White House with direct access to you and your team?
This gave the president* his cue to go off on a rant about how the Fake News is keeping the country from throwing him the parade his performance in office is due. It’s past time for the networks to decide whether or not these exercises in executive wankery are harmful to the general effort against the pandemic. It’s time to quarantine the Crazy.
While it’s still unclear how all farmers will be economically impacted by the coronavirus, the situation is already affecting small-scale producers who sell into local markets.
“It’s unprecedented. I’ve never seen anything like this,” Kurdieh said, estimating that about 60 percent of his business depends on restaurants, and at this time of year, that number is closer to 75 percent. “We are figuring everything out day by day.”
The fate of farmers’ markets is still uncertain in many places, but COVID-19’s catastrophic effect on restaurants that buy from local growers is now assured. President Trump issued new guidelines on Monday that advised Americans to avoid groups of 10 or more people and called for governors in affected states to close restaurants and bars. Before that, governors in many states across the country had already ordered restaurants closed except for takeout and delivery.
Mayors in cities such as New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. all issued similar but varying directives. And in places where government officials haven’t stepped in, many restaurants are closing anyway, either out of necessity due to lack of customers or in service of the public interest to slow the spread of the virus.
“We really rely on restaurants,” Joe Schirmer, owner of Dirty Girl Produce, a 40-acre organic farm in Santa Cruz, California told Civil Eats on Monday. “[Those sales are] at zero. It’s totally done. There are no restaurants buying.”
The shuttering of institutions—especially schools—is also affecting small farms. As of March 16, 35 states had closed public schools.
Kate Harwell. (Photo courtesy of Sky Island Farm)
Kate Harwell grows vegetables, fruit, herbs, and flowers at Sky Island Farm in Grays Harbor, Washington, a couple of hours outside of Seattle. She had been structuring her whole season around starting a contract to sell produce to Seattle public schools starting in mid-April.
“We were basically going to be wholesaling a large percentage of what we’re growing to them. That was going to be a big chunk of money,” she said. Seattle schools are now officially closed through April 24, and Harwell hasn’t heard back from her district contact. “I’m sure she’s dealing with a lot right now,” she said.
Given the uncertainty around when schools will reopen, Harwell is now working with the assumption that she has lost that sales channel. Her goal is to make up the income by shifting gears and expanding her community supported agriculture (CSA) program, which she had previously kept small.
After she reopened it and began posting about it on Instagram, including a new offer for home delivery, her membership grew faster than it ever had before. “I got 10 sign-ups just yesterday,” she said.
And she’s not alone. Many farmers are pivoting from restaurant and institutional sales to sell directly to customers who are holed up at home. In New York, Kurdieh is ramping up online sales of his produce through the platform OurHarvest. In the Bay Area, which instituted a “shelter in place” order as of March 17, Schirmer is working on quickly putting together a “box” program with both pick-up and delivery options. (Essential activities including food shopping and medical visits are not restricted by the order.)
One of his oldest restaurant customers, Zuni Café, is helping put together a produce pick-up that will aggregate local food from Dirty Girl Produce and other farms they work with. In an Instagram post on Monday, the restaurant hinted at the initiative. “In the coming days we will be starting a new project that we are hopeful will keep our farmers connected to everyone,” they wrote.
Schirmer said there has been an outpouring of support from the local food community, and that keeping the business afloat will require his team to be extraordinarily nimble. “We’ve got food, we’ve got a crew, we’ve got trucks and infrastructure,” he said. “We’re just changing our business model on the fly.”
Emma Jagoz. (Photo courtesy of Moon Valley Farm)
Like many East Coast farms, Moon Valley Farm, a favorite supplier for restaurants in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., would typically be gearing up to start its CSAseason in the coming weeks. But farmer Emma Jagoz announced on Saturday that the farm would begin “veggie home delivery,” offering a la carte CSA shares (rather than requiring a seasonal commitment) delivered to customers, starting this week.
“Of course [the closures] are going to affect our bottom line,” Gurley said, but the cooperative is in a better position than it would be otherwise, because it already has the capacity to take online orders and offer home delivery. “We’re hoping the word gets out. In order to recoup the lost restaurant business, we hope that we can get these direct sales moving, and people realize we’re out there and how safe and available local food is.”
Gurley has also set up a pick-up point for produce orders in conjunction with a restaurant partner, Well Crafted Kitchen, that is continuing to operate a takeout business.
So far, farmers say the pandemic is not affecting them as much as it would during summer or fall, when most of their revenue generally comes in. But if it continues into peak harvest time, things are going to get much more difficult. “If this was peak season, this would be a disaster,” Kurdieh said. “We don’t know how this is going to turn out, but we’re planning [for summer] just as if it was a normal year, because I don’t know how else to do it.”
Depending on the length of the crisis, without restaurants and institutions, they may have to sell all their food directly to consumers.
“[We’re asking]: ‘How do we feed our communities?’ I think that’s the goal of every small farmer at this point,” Kate Harwell said. “If [global] commerce stops, we have to get our food from somewhere. I think people should absolutely start thinking about their local farmers, and I hope this puts them in a position to support them.”
Fighting Hunger with Community in the Era of Coronavirus
The founder of D.C. Central Kitchen offers a list of ways to feed and care for our neighbors in this time of uncertainty.
By Robert Egger, Food Access, Health, Nutrition March 13, 2020
Coronavirus is producing a wave of need that will likely overwhelm most local food distribution charities and meal programs. But that doesn’t mean people have to go hungry.
Even before this virus hit, food banks and pantries were struggling to meet the needs of an estimated 37 million Americans who routinely struggle with hunger. Similarly, in many communities there’s a waiting list for Meals on Wheels, the main vehicle through which many home-bound elders access meals. Now, these and other networks are facing an unprecedented trifecta of difficulty.
Charitable donations of food and money—the lifeblood of all nonprofits—will likely be impacted by the economic tailspin caused by the virus. Volunteerism will also decrease, as companies, religious groups, schools, and individuals pull back out of concern for their members’ safety. (In addition, many volunteers are seniors, and they will need to step back from the work for their own safety.) Finally, demand for free and low-cost food will soar, as Americans of all ages, who are impacted by lay-offs, canceled events, and retirement plan losses will turn to charities for help.
We have to admit, as we have with our healthcare system, that our charitable systems aren’t prepared to meet an emergency of this level. So, we need to innovate—and we need to do it fast.
While the federal government weighs its response, and national groups including Feeding America, Meals on Wheels, and others work overtime to keep their networks sourced with food, we should also look at how to support our own communities in this unprecedented movement of anxiety, fear, and need. Here are my suggestions:
Launch an elder grocery support network. Many communities have Facebook or Nextdoor pages dedicated to sharing news. These can be activated to enlist healthy, willing, and able-bodied volunteers to shop and run errands for frightened, health-compromised elders. Physical contact must be limited, but volunteers can leave groceries outside people’s homes and funds can be transferred electronically before or after the supplies are bought. Volunteers can shop later at night to avoid crowds. Volunteers can also make stops at pharmacies or drug stores and elders should be reminded to buy things they might need if they become ill. For example, Gatorade or other forms of electrolytes could be vital. Also ask about pets’ needs.
Start a shared meal program. As you shop for your own supplies, consider buying extra food to prepare meals for neighbors. Rice and beans, soup, chili, and baked pasta are all easy, affordable options. Cost-conscious recipes are easy to find online. Food safety must be a priority. Cook food to a proper temperature, and deliver anything you make within two hours, to avoid contamination. Use disposable bowls and plates if you can, to avoid the need to return containers. If possible, try to use microwave-friendly packaging (avoid tinfoil and styrofoam). Write a note of comfort, and include the time the meal was cooked and any reheating directions.
Fight isolation. For many elders, the pain of loneliness often exceeds that of hunger. Organize your community to check in with people. Walk your neighbors’ dogs, help tend their gardens, or cut some spring flowers to brighten their worlds. You can chat, or drink a glass of wine together by phone or over video, which gives you the ability to communicate eye-to-eye with people. Either way, if you can help lessen the impact of this period of social isolation, it will go a long way.
As my friend Chef José Andrés of World Central Kitchen said recently, “Sometimes the bigger problems we face in humanity have simple solutions. But they don’t happen when we’re in continuous meetings about how to solve them.… Stop talking, stop planning, and start cooking.” I couldn’t agree more.
We’re in the midst of an unprecedented disaster, and we can’t expect charity, or the government to meet the rising need. Nor can we let fear overcome us. Now is the time to fight hunger with community. You can be a local hero who stands up and says, “Let’s do this.” All it takes is determination, compassion, and a working kitchen.
Congress Races to Address Food Insecurity in Its Legislative Response to COVID-19
Seeking to support vulnerable populations impacted by coronavirus, the two bills are facing resistance from the White House and some Republicans.
By Lisa Held, Food Access and Policy, Health March 13, 2020
Editor’s note: This is a developing story; Civil Eats will update as the news evolves.
March 16, 2020 update: Early on Saturday, March 14, the House passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act with strong bipartisan support, and with many of the provisions described in the original article below included.
The final text includes language that gives USDA the ability to waive various requirements that are preventing districts from feeding hungry children while schools are shuttered. As of March 15, at least 64,000 schools have closed, affecting more than 32.5 million students.
On SNAP, the final bill prevents eligibility restrictions during a public health emergency and gives states some flexibility to ask for emergency allotments, but does not directly increase benefits. It also provides an additional $500 million in funding for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program and an additional $250 million for food programs for low-income seniors, through September 2021.
The Senate is expected to take up the bill today. While some Republicans and President Trump have signaled support, its fate is still uncertain.
March 13, 2020, 3pm ET update:In a press conference at 2:00pm ET, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the House will be “passing a bill” today. “Our bill takes aggressive action to strengthen food security initiatives including student meals as well as SNAP, senior meals, and food banks,” she said. However, Civil Eats has yet to see a final version of the legislative package, called the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. So it remains unclear which of the provisions on school meals and SNAP benefits (described below, as provisions of separate marker bills) will make it into the final legislation.
March 13, 2020, 11am ET update: As of early Friday, House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-California) and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin continue to negotiate the package of legislation; a vote in the House of Representatives is expected today. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell adjourned for the weekend on Thursday, but canceled the Senate’s scheduled recess next week, so a vote on the legislative package could happen next week if the House passes the bill.
At least 10,600 schools have closed across the U.S., affecting at least 4.9 million students. Five states have closed their schools entirely: Ohio, Maryland, New Mexico, Michigan, and Washington.
The original news story begins below.
On Wednesday, House lawmakers introduced an emergency legislative package to address the impacts of the coronavirus outbreak. In addition to testing and sick-leave provisions, the bill attempts to tackle food insecurity by increasing access to federal food assistance and ensuring that low-income students still receive meals when schools close.
“As the coronavirus continues to spread, we must make sure everyone, especially low-income families, have access to nutrition assistance benefits,” said Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-California), a co-sponsor of the Ensuring Emergency Food Security Now Act, in a press release. “As a former food stamps recipient, I know how important programs like SNAP are during troubled times, and now is the time to expand access, not restrict it. This bill will ensure that our communities’ needs are still being met in a robust way.”
The same day, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially labeled the coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic. And although the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, is currently at 938 (with 29 deaths), those numbers are expected to rise quickly.
As schools, workplaces, and other public places have been shutting down—for prevention as well as quarantine—many families are packing their pantries. But families living paycheck to paycheck and using Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to get dinner on the table each night don’t have the resources to stock up.
“I think what this [crisis] does is it illuminates the most vulnerable populations. That’s kids, hungry people, veterans, seniors, and the working families who rely on the emergency food system every single day, [even] without a crisis,” said Noreen Springstead, the executive director of nonprofit hunger-relief organization WhyHunger. “Losing 20 percent of your stock portfolio feels horrible, but when you can’t feed your child and you’re in survival mode, that feels so threatening.”
The sweeping package of legislation covers a wide range of issues, including guaranteeing paid sick leave for workers and waiving the costs of coronavirus tests. It also addresses food security in two parts, written as marker bills that will be incorporated into the larger, comprehensive legislation.
The Ensuring Emergency Food Security Now Act increases the value of SNAP benefits for recipients through September 2020 and provides the funding needed for states to make those increases. Springstead said the simple approach is “the most effective way” to quickly address the issue, as it will put “money for food and nourishment into the hands of the most vulnerable, who will then use those federal dollars in local stores to generate economic activity.”
The bill also designates extra funding for federal food distribution on Native American reservations and blocks any new SNAP eligibility requirements from going into effect. That provision is meant to prevent the Trump administration’s new SNAP eligibility rules—which are scheduled to go into effect on April 1—from removing an estimated 700,000 people from the program.
Meanwhile, there is growing attention to how students who rely on federal meal programs will continue to eat if more school districts close. Close to 22 million children across the country receive free or reduced-price lunches in public schools. According to Education Week, which is tracking closures, as of March 12, 2,100 schools serving more than 1.3 million students have already closed or are set to do so.
The USDA has begun granting waivers to states to allow them to activate the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) to feed children and waive the requirement that meals be served communally. However, SFSP only allows meal service in places where at least 50 percent of the student population is eligible for free or reduced lunch, meaning low-income students in wealthier districts would not have access to meals. At a House hearing on Tuesday, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Sonny Perdue said the agency would like to offer meals in other areas, but “we don’t believe we have the legal and statutory authority” to do so.
The COVID–19 Child Nutrition Response Act intends to resolve that issue. Sponsored by Representatives James Comer (R-Kentucky) and Suzanne Bonamici (D-Oregon), the bipartisan bill “will create a nationwide waiver authority, allow school officials to distribute food in any number of settings across all nutrition programs, and allow for flexibility on meal components if food supply or procurement is disrupted.”
Maintaining access to “federally funded school meals is going to be critical,” as the situation progresses, Springstead said, and how schools will manage implementing changes to meal service remains to be seen. (At least one district in Seattle that has moved to online classes is using an online ordering and distributed pickup option to get meals to students and their parents.)
Both bills are part of a package that House speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) is pushing toward a vote on Thursday. Pelosi has been working on negotiating components of the package with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, but President Trump said he does not support the legislation, signaling likely Republican resistance in the Senate.
If the legislation does make it through both chambers of Congress and is signed into law, it’s also unclear how quickly the changes will be able to go into effect.
When it comes to something as pressing as vulnerable populations having access to food, representatives like Rosa DeLauro (D-Connecticut) are stressing the urgency. “Too often, people who are living paycheck-to-paycheck are forgotten,” she said in a press release, “and it is exactly at times like these that we must be thinking about them and doing everything we can to help them.”
These tiny, plastic-munching caterpillars can clean up our world – but there’s a catch
Joshua Bote, USA TODAY
A species of caterpillar may provide answers on how to best eradicate plastic waste, a 300 million ton per year problem.
The waxworm, researchers discovered in 2017, is seemingly able to eat through common types of plastic – including polyethylene, a nonbiodegradable type of plastic that is the most commonly used worldwide.
“They are voracious feeders during these larval stages,” Bryan Cassone, an associate professor of biology at Brandon University, told USA TODAY.
Researchers at Brandon University in Manitoba, Canada, found that waxworms are able to “ingest and metabolize polyethylene at unprecedented rates” thanks to the microorganisms in their intestines.
“The caterpillar’s gut microbiota seem to play a key role in the polyethylene biodegradation process,” the researchers wrote.
Researchers found a greater amount of “microbial abundance” in the caterpillars’ guts when they were ingesting plastic than when they ate a traditional diet of honeycomb.
In waxworms, polyethylene metabolizes into a glycol, which is biodegradable.
Waxworms are not an end-all solution to plastic waste, however. Wax larvae are pests for bees, naturally feeding off honeycomb and running the risk of reducing their populations – and those of plants and crops.
Further, it remains unclear how the plastic breakdown process works in the waxworm, and how its health is affected by its consumption.
The hope, Cassone said, is that if researchers can harness what in the gut bacteria helps caterpillars so easily break down plastic, it can be used to design better ways to eliminate plastic from the environment.
“We envision harnessing the waxworm and its microbiome to develop approaches that do not require whole organisms – rather the products or by-products produced from their interactions that make their ability to breakdown plastic so efficient,” Cassone said.
Colorado River flow shrinks from climate crisis, risking ‘severe water shortages’
Oliver Milman, The Guardian February 20, 2020
The flow of the Colorado River is dwindling due to the impacts of global heating, risking “severe water shortages” for the millions of people who rely upon one of America’s most storied waterways, researchers have found.
Increasing periods of drought and rising temperatures have been shrinking the flow of the Colorado in recent years and scientists have now developed a model to better understand how the climate crisis is fundamentally changing the 1,450-mile waterway.
The loss of snow in the Colorado River basin due to human-induced global heating has resulted in the river absorbing more of sun’s energy, thereby increasing the amount of water lost in evaporation, the US Geological Survey scientists found.
This is because snow and ice reflect sunlight back away from the Earth’s surface, a phenomenon known as the albedo effect. The loss of albedo as snow and ice melt away is reducing the flow of the Colorado by 9.5% for each 1C of warming, according to the research published in Science.
The world has heated up by about 1C since the pre-industrial era and is on course for an increase of more than 3C by the end of the century unless planet-warming emissions are drastically cut. For the Colorado this scenario means an “increasing risk of severe water shortages”, the study states, with any increase in rainfall not likely to offset the loss in reflective snow.
The magnitude of the Colorado’s decline as outlined in the Science paper is “eye popping”, according to Brad Udall, a senior scientist at Colorado State University and an expert on water supplies in the west who was not involved in the research.
“This has important implications for water users and managers alike,” Udall said. “More broadly, these results tell us that we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as soon as we possible can.
“We’ve wasted nearly 30 years bickering over the science. The science is crystal clear – we must reduce greenhouse gas emissions immediately.”
The Colorado rises in the Rocky Mountains and slices through ranch lands and canyons, including the Grand Canyon, as it winds through the American west. It previously emptied into the Gulf of California in Mexico but now ends several miles shy of this due to the amount of water extraction for US agriculture and cities ranging from Denver to Tijuana.
The river’s upper basin supplies water to about 40 million people and supports 16m jobs. It feeds the two largest water reserves in the US, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, with the latter supplying Las Vegas with almost all of its water.
Snowpacks that last into late spring have historically fed streams that have nourished the Colorado River, as well as reducing the likelihood of major fires. As the climate heats up, the river is evaporating away and the risk of damaging wildfires is increasing.
The climate crisis is compounding existing threats to the river, which include intensive water pumping for agriculture, water use by urban areas and the threat of pollution from uranium mining. Lake Mead, the vast reservoir formed by the Hoover dam, has dropped to levels not seen since the 1960s.
A 19-year drought that racked stretches of the river almost provoked the US government to impose mandatory cuts in water use from the river last year, only for seven western states to agree to voluntary reductions. The problems are set to become more severe, however, as the climate becomes hotter and drier at a time when demand for water from expanding cities in the American west increases.
Thousands Of People Are Growing ‘Climate Victory Gardens’ To Save The Planet
Kyla Mandel February 6, 2020
Right across from Atholton High School in Columbia, Maryland, sits a garden roughly a third of an acre with rows of vegetable beds and a newly added pond to encourage wildlife. The garden, located along the road so it’s the first thing people see when they drive past, is being managed mostly by students who planted their first perennial seeds to support pollinators last fall and are now eagerly waiting to see what springs up.
It is part of a 6.4-acre plot of farmland bought last June by the Community Ecology Institute, a nonprofit that seeks to reunite people with nature, from a retiring organic farmer who had managed it since the 1980’s and didn’t want it to be lost to development. Fifty years ago, the entire area was agricultural land. Today, this plot is the only farm left. And one of the first things the Community Ecology Institute did when it took over the farm was to plant this “climate victory garden.”
The nonprofit is one of over 2,000 organizations and individuals across the country growing food in climate victory gardens ― be it on a balcony or in a backyard, a community garden or larger urban farm project ― in a bid to mitigate the climate crisis.
Climate change is “a tremendous crisis, but it’s also a really amazing opportunity to shift the way that we’ve been doing things that no longer work,” said Chiara D’Amore, the Community Ecology Institute’s executive director. “We want to use the entire farm as a way to teach about climate action … and we see land-based climate action as one of the more tangible, gratifying ways to help people feel like there’s some hope, feel like there’s something they can do.”
The climate victory garden movement was launched by nonprofit Green America two years ago. It is inspired by the estimated 20 million victory gardens planted across the U.S. by the end of World War II, responsible for producing 40% of all vegetables consumed in the country at the time. The environmental nonprofit is calling on people to use whatever outdoor space they have to grow fruits and vegetables, using “regenerative” methods to help tackle agriculture’s carbon footprint.
About a third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from food production ― that includes emissions related to storing, transporting and selling food. However, the main climate contribution comes from growing crops and livestock and the effect of deforestation to create more cropland. In the U.S., the agriculture sector accounts for roughly 9% of the country’s annual greenhouse gas emissions. Industrial agriculture can also contribute to water pollution from fertilizer runoff and a loss in biodiversity.
Individual gardening efforts alone aren’t enough to address these issues, but it’s a start. “Certainly the victory garden didn’t solve the problem, it didn’t win the war, but it was something people could be called on to do to feel like they were a part of the solution and doing something that was a benefit,” reflected D’Amore, who said the same goes for the climate crisis today.
Many of the goals of the victory garden in the 20th century are echoed in the modern environmental movement.
Herbert Hoover, head of the U.S. Food Administration during World War I, encouraged Americans to live simply, grow their own food and consume less. The Federal Bureau of Education also launched the U.S. School Garden Army, which enrolled 2.5 million children in 1919. Those school gardens are credited with helping produce food worth $48 million at the time. Thanks to efforts like these, the U.S. successfully avoided having to ration during that war.
During World War II, citizens were once again encouraged to grow everything from potatoes to peach trees, and many women, as part of the Women’s Land Army, stepped in to manage urban victory gardens and rural farms. In 1943, first lady Eleanore Roosevelt planted a victory garden on the front lawn of the White House in an effort to show that anyone could successfully grow food.
Soy was promoted as an alternative protein to meat ― although more because meat was being rationed to feed the military than over environmental concerns. Soybeans were marketed as “wonder” or “miracle” beans that were easier to grow and store than meat. Canning, drying and preserving were also encouraged to help foods last longer.
“For us, the inspiration grew from knowing how many people were involved [in these victory gardens], how many people wanted to make a difference, and how many people really wanted to be involved in this food culture,” said Jillian Semaan, food campaigns director for Green America. “Knowing those numbers and what victory gardens did at that time, we felt we had a great opportunity.”
The difference now, though, is that Green America hopes to harness this same spirit through the potential of what’s known as “regenerative agriculture” ― a way of farming that’s dedicated to enriching the soil while also producing healthful food, with the added benefit of storing carbon in the ground. As the government’s 2018 National Climate Assessment, along with many other scientists, acknowledges, “agriculture is one of the few sectors with the potential for significant increases in carbon sequestration to offset [greenhouse gas] emissions.”
The challenge, however, will be to scale it up. There’s a long way to go before reaching wartime levels, but Green America hopes to more than double the number of climate victory gardens this year to 5,000.
The term “regenerative agriculture” was coined in the 1980’s by Robert Rodale, son of the man who applied the term “organic” to food. The most important idea behind regenerative farming (or “carbon farming”) is soil health. This means relying far less on fertilizers and chemicals and focusing more on methods like planting cover crops, applying compost to build up nutrients in the soil and make it more fertile, and not tilling.
Tilling ― breaking up the soil’s surface ― is used to fight weeds and prepare soil for growing. But it reduces the soil’s structural integrity, meaning it won’t hold as much water and will erode more easily ― two qualities of increasing importance as climate change brings extreme weather, such as the devastating floods the Midwest experienced last year.
Tilling also releases carbon that has been locked into the earth throughout the plant’s life cycle. The more carbon-rich the soil becomes, the better plants grow.
Prioritizing soil health is what differentiates climate victory gardens from organic or wildlife gardens, D’Amore said. “Starting from that literally ground-up perspective, we need to make sure that the soil is really healthy to be mindful of what we’re growing,” she said, describing roots as a “whole underground infrastructure” that helps sequester carbon. In practice, this means finding some edible perennial plants with deep roots, such as currant bushes, which her farm will be growing along with other berries.
Meanwhile, cover crops ― like clover, turnips, barley and spinach ― help keep the soil in place and act as a protective blanket in winter.
“If a farmer is practicing regenerative agriculture on his or her land, the soil is getting improved over time. It’s going to get healthier,” said Jeff Tkach, chief impact officer at the Rodale Institute, an educational nonprofit that researches and promotes regenerative organic farming. “If the soil is improving, well, then the food that the farmer is producing is going to become more nutrient-dense over time. And if those consuming that food are eating more nutrient-dense food, then they’re going to get healthier over time … and the community’s going to thrive.”
A healthy community is at the heart of BLISS Meadows, a climate victory garden that launched last March in Baltimore. The urban farm is run by Backyard Basecamp, an organization that seeks to connect communities of color with nature.
Its founder and executive director, Atiya Wells, is a pediatric nurse by trade, and her approach is to promote the health benefits of having a local green space and of growing your own food. The community garden is in the process of renovating a vacant home next door to the farm and plans to transform it into a community kitchen that will host cooking classes and tastings, Wells said, “to show people we can eat healthier and it can be delicious.”
But it’s also about community resilience. “When we all think about climate change and what’s going to happen, we know that people who have means can just pick up and go, and the rest of us are going to be here,” Wells said. The BLISS Meadows garden is in a predominantly black and brown neighborhood.
“So this is kind of us really starting things so that when that time comes, we already have a self-sustaining neighborhood where we’re growing food for our neighbors,” she explained, “[and] we’re able to continue to survive.”
Many who support the regenerative agriculture movement see it as a clear, easy climate win with enormous potential. Some, including Green America, go so far as to claim we can “reverse” climate change by simply changing how we farm.
According to a 40-year trial conducted by the Rodale Institute of growing conventional and regenerative crops side-by-side, adopting regenerative methods brought 40% higher crop yields during drought times, used 45% less energy and produced 40% fewer emissions compared to conventional farming.
However, as David Montgomery, a geologist at the University of Washington and author of two books on dirt and soil, told Civil Eats last October, regenerative agriculture should be seen as a “good down-payment on reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide” as opposed to a panacea. Claims that it can reverse climate change, he said, are a stretch.
The hope is that climate victory gardens will nudge us toward climate action. But how can something as seemingly small as one person growing tomatoes in their backyard help tackle a problem as immense as agriculture’s effect on climate?
“Everything starts with incremental change,” Semaan said. It begins with reconnecting people to their food and how it got to their plates.
Working with high school students in the Maryland area, the Community Ecology Institute plans to help set up a youth-led program to encourage others to start climate victory gardens throughout the community. “I think our youth get it in a way that many of our leaders and older generations, in general, don’t,” D’Amore said. “They see climate change as the crisis it is. It’s going to impact all our lives, and they want to feel like they can do something that matters.”
Every item grown at home also means one less thing purchased from the store, cutting down on transportation. Even if it’s just a patch of chives, Semaan said, each gardener knows the resources, from water to gas money, that are saved with those plants. “It’s all incremental change,” she said, “and the more people who do it, even if it’s just herbs on a windowsill, the better the planet is for it.”
Tkach agreed. He views the climate victory gardens as a way to “shift people’s consciousness by getting people to just take some kind of action in their own backyards.”
By growing your own food, you have a better understanding of what goes into it, he echoed. “I think as consumers become more attuned to that, it’s going to influence their own decisions,” so people might pay closer attention to food labels that tell you how and where something was grown. “When they go to the grocery store, they’re going to be more adept at [knowing] what to look for.”
Eventually, if enough people are doing this, they can help shift society toward a tipping point, where consumer demand for regenerative farming disrupts the conventional system, Tkach explained.
“I feel like it’s our moment in history. If we could just continue to change the way people eat, it changes everything.”
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