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Gardens and Food Security
woman standing in garden with sunflowers in background
Jessica Ladley

“Jessica Ladley of West Winfield awoke one perfectly weathered day to find that her lawn had erupted into the most magnificent garden…”

…that’s the way I wish to begin this story, and so I have. Standing within the boundaries of marigolds, time slowed as I snapped a photo of a bee lighting on the giant Zinnia near my face. Every photo is disappointing because I failed to capture the true feeling of walking between rows of brussels sprouts and kale. I think the moments we share our growing spaces are among the most precious; the work invested in green-space is a backbreaking expression of love. Recently, Jessica had become the proud owner of the space she had rented for years. Even before the lawn became officially her own, Jessica began the hard labor of amending the soil, adding organic matter, and adjusting the pH to create a habitable environment for growing all manner of things.

When asked what the first year of her garden was like, she smiled wanly and said, “We’ve come a lonnnng way.”

Establishing a garden space can feel overwhelming, but Jessica was determined to feed her family well. For her, that meant fresh produce as early as the season would allow, supplemented with the sweaty-business of canning from her garden bounty. When I interviewed Jessica in the fall, she had already been preserving the summer’s harvest by drying, canning, and freezing the food that would feed her family through the winter. With the continued labor of careful, safe food preservation, canned goods would slowly begin to line her pantry, promising a taste of summer during the long dark months.

Jessica’s growing space was easy to navigate by pathways of flat rocks alongside swaths of mixed flowers and vegetables. The sunflowers, in all their glory, provided shade to some of the more tender vegetables during the hottest months of Summer. Jessica paused along the path to point out her collection of basil; I looked up to see her bolstered by sunflowers, arm outstretched across her green domain. She was so eager to share the space and I was struck by the honor of it. I snapped a photo of a woman in her natural habitat.

preserved food in jars and onions in basket

Seasonably late, seed heads waited to be collected and saved, while a few flowers gave a final push of brilliant color before the cold would give the final word. I’ve always admired the flowers that start the earliest and hang on until the latest in the season, providing much-needed food for the bees, and the motivation to pull some weeds to make way for such perseverance.

Food access is a critical determinant of health, with poor access to fresh, healthy foods contributing to devastating health outcomes like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity, among other chronic conditions. When the Great American grocery store closed in West Winfield on February 28th, 2019, the surrounding area suddenly became a food desert. There was no large food retailer nearby, forcing area residents to drive as far as 45 minutes to get groceries. For many folks without transportation, this has become a major threat to their health.

There are many different strategies to combat food insecurity, but for Jessica the answer was always in her backyard. Jessica’s advice for those interested in taking greater control over their own food security was simple: Dig in, then continue to dig in. She kept a yearly garden journal to help her understand the garden’s personality for pests of both insect and microbial varieties. Jess also built a component of success into her garden that perhaps she, herself, may not be fully aware of: kindness. She led me down her garden paths, telling me the origin stories of the seeds she continues to save. She offered me her time, advice, and encouragement to share the love of food gardening. I pulled a few weeds, admired the bees, and took home some Kale and inspiration.

Human connection is a powerful component of our food security. We invite you to share your journey as you dig in… and continue to dig in

Cameron Burke is part of the Cornell Cooperative Extension Herkimer County team. She’s an advocate for nutrition security and sustainable food systems, believing in the power of human connections, education, and grit to build resilient food systems. Cameron has committed herself to fostering bonds between communities and their food, promoting local farmers, artisans, and producers for their invaluable contributions. Her passion for food and community drives positive change and meaningful connections in the local food movement.