The disruption wrought by the so-called ‘Beast from the East’ at the beginning of March brought home how utterly dependent we are on regular, guaranteed supplies of foodstuffs.
I listened to seemingly endless accounts of the hardships being experienced by residents of hamlets three miles further on than the back-of-beyond who were entirely cut off from any food shops; and I wondered why journalists were not interested in our plight, trapped as we were in a residential street near Polmont station accessible only on foot for four days, with the young and fit returning from fruitless pedestrian excursions to report that there was a complete absence of staple foods like bread and milk anyway. We coped; our fitter neighbours toiled willingly to open our road to vehicles; and we didn’t complain about a lack of council services, well aware that our road is priority 3 for gritting … entirely properly … and would not be done until more essential routes were open.
But it did bring home how dependent we are on regular, guaranteed supplies of foodstuffs and how some people struggle to cope with even a temporary interruption in supplies. What can it be like not to know where one’s next meal is coming from, the fate of large numbers of refugees and millions of the inhabitants of the world’s poorest countries? And it was because our normally fortunate condition was in the front of my mind that I listened more attentively than usual to a broadcast appeal to donate to a charity dedicated to helping women in just such a country. Apparently my gift of only £20 would allow a woman … like the example quoted by the broadcaster … to set up her own small market garden, thereby supplying her own family with fresh food and leaving a healthy surplus to sell to her neighbours with enough left over to allow her to make chutney which she could also sell. Now that’s a pretty good deal for £20 in anybody’s money.
I read that, to grow all the vegetables a family of six will need all year round in the UK, a keen, well-skilled gardener would need a minimum of something like 100 square metres of double-dug, compost-rich, well-fertilised ground. An ‘ordinary’ gardener whose soil lacked these special characteristics would need at least twice that area ... say, 250 square metres; and I doubt whether one could earn enough from selling vegetables to one’s neighbours in a poor country to transform one’s lifestyle from at least four times as much, say 1000 square metres. This is one-tenth of a hectare or a quarter of an acre in old money; and that’s a lot of land for one family-tending woman to cultivate year round!
Now the lady chosen by the charity to exemplify what could be done must have been a very hard worker indeed. I applaud her willingness to achieve so much. Were it not for the fact that I support several charities of my choosing and have taught myself to harden my heart to the myriad deserving causes which implore me to support them, I might just have been tempted to send at least £20 off immediately to the freepost address quoted at the end of the appeal. £20 to move an entire family from starvation to food self-sufficiency and increase their income sufficiently to pay medical bills and let the children attend school while at the same time easing their neighbours’ food shortage is as good a use of money as one is likely to find. And even though I doubt whether such willing workers are the norm, I do wholeheartedly endorse the charity’s philosophy that it is better to encourage self-sufficiency than to offer food aid, recognising that this latter course of action is often inevitable. But the moral of this tale is surely that charity can indeed … in the right circumstances … begin in the garden whenever it is possible to help people achieve self-sufficiency in food production.