Fed Up by Costs, Many Grow It Alone

Tanika Gentry, with daughters Natasha, 10, and Queene, 6, grows her own vegetables in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn.
Tanika Gentry, with daughters Natasha, 10, and Queene, 6, grows her own vegetables in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. (Photo: Robin Shulman/Post)
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By Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 3, 2008

NEW YORK -- Just beneath an L train subway platform in Brooklyn, Tanika Gentry fingers the deep green leaves of a collard plant in the black soil of a community garden.

This is dinner.

Gentry, fed up with the spiking cost of food, recently decided to grow her own. Now she is reaping a harvest of collards, cabbages, tomatoes and pumpkins to feed her family.

"Once you have to choose between eating and fuel, there's nothing greater than going back to the beginning and making your own," said Gentry, 32, who home-schools her two daughters. "With the way things are going, it may be something a lot more people are realistically doing."

From Atlanta to Minneapolis to Seattle, people are reacting to the stagnant economy and the high cost of produce by planting their own fruits and vegetables, say garden store owners, bulk seed sellers and industry analysts.

In the skyscrapered canyons of New York City, increasing numbers of people are growing their food on fire escapes, on rooftops, in back yards and in community gardens.

It is a phenomenon that has always ebbed and flowed with the economy, said Bruce Butterfield, the market research director of the National Gardening Association, who has been tracking it for decades. The biggest recent peak in homegrown food came in 1975, during a national oil crisis, he said, when 49 percent of U.S. households were growing vegetables.

There were Liberty Gardens to help during World War I, and World War II inspired Victory Gardens, which produced an estimated 40 percent of all vegetables consumed in the country in 1943. The Great Depression spawned Relief Gardens in the 1930s, and in 1974 President Gerald R. Ford encouraged Whip Inflation Now, or WIN, Gardens.

Last year, Butterfield said, about 22 percent of U.S. households -- including many in cities and suburbs -- grew vegetables, spending an average of $58 to do so, up from $48 per household in 2006. Butterfield anticipates that number will be significantly higher this year.

The reasons vary but include increasing interest in the quality and environmental impact of food. Recently, money has become a bigger factor.

In New York City, more than 3 million residents, 38 percent of the population, had difficulty affording food last year, according to a recent report by the Food Bank for New York City -- up 13 percentage points from 2003. Food costs rose 15 percent during that period. The number of people using soup kitchens and food pantries hit 1.3 million last year, up 24 percent from 2004.

At the Secret Garden in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, where Gentry tends her vegetables, much of the 29,000 square feet of growing space on two levels has been sown by new gardeners concerned about food prices, she said.

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