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Study: More Vermonters gardened, foraged and hunted during the pandemic

Published: 6/15/2021 9:42:23 PM
Modified: 6/15/2021 9:42:28 PM

Vermonters grew, foraged and hunted their food more during the COVID-19 pandemic, a new study from the University of Vermont’s Gund Institute shows.

A representative survey of 600 Vermonters, conducted in August and September 2020, shows that 35% grew their food, or obtained it from the land, after the pandemic began. Half of those who gardened, foraged, hunted, fished or tended backyard livestock did so for the first time last year or more intensely than in prior years.

About 35% of Vermonters produced food in a garden last year, according to the survey. Around 10% ate fish they caught, 9% foraged, 6% hunted, another 6% tended livestock and 23.5% canned food they grew.

Meredith Niles, a UVM professor whose research focuses on achieving sustainable food security, spearheaded the study. She’s been tracking COVID-19’s impacts on food in Vermont since March 2020.

One previous study, conducted within the first week of Gov. Phil Scott’s stay-at-home order, showed that 84% of Vermonters who were experiencing food insecurity before the pandemic remained food-insecure during that time. It also showed that the majority of those people were not using food assistance programs.

About 29% of Vermont households classified as food-insecure since the pandemic began, the survey said.

Niles became interested in home food procurement, or growing and managing one’s food, after reading news stories about spikes in the sales of seed packets and chicks, and she began to hear anecdotes from Vermonters who wanted to bolster their gardens during the pandemic.

Some were concerned about supply chain disruptions that cause food to become more expensive.

“We became pretty interested in thinking about — would COVID-19 be a catalyst moment for people to get more involved in what we call home food procurement, or local food access?” she said.

It wouldn’t be the first time a challenging era has sparked the creation of gardens in the United States.

During World War II, when supply chains were disrupted, backyard gardeners produced 40% of the country’s fruits and vegetables in “victory gardens,” and tending such a plot was considered a patriotic act.

“The current COVID-19 context has created new difficulties and significant increases in food insecurity in many countries, including the United States,” the study said. “Nevertheless, existing evidence suggests that [home food procurement] may positively affect both food security and dietary quality outcomes in high-income countries through multiple pathways.”

The latest survey, which contributes to a broader picture showing where and how Vermonters obtain food, could help organizations and agencies determine the best ways to address food insecurity, Niles said.

Some demographic groups were particularly likely to try home food procurement, including Vermont families who were experiencing food insecurity, people of color, those whose jobs were negatively affected by the pandemic and people living in larger households.

Participants in Vermont’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also called 3SquaresVT, can use their benefits to buy seedlings, Niles said, adding that she’s spoken to other state agencies about other relevant programs that could grow out of the results.

At first glance, Vermonters’ propensity toward homesteading last year may have had positive implications on diet. Overall, respondents who reported partaking in home food procurement were much more likely to eat more fruits and vegetables than those who didn’t — but that was the case only for food-secure households.

Niles said the data shows that food-insecure and food-secure households are engaging in similar amounts of gardening but that food-insecure households were more likely to be gardening for the first time during COVID-19.

“I think that could maybe be part of what we’re seeing here,” Niles said, “that food-insecure households saw gardening as a potential opportunity to maybe increase their food access, but they’re doing it for the first time. So they may lack some of the resources or knowledge to do gardening in a way that might be productive.”

Food-insecure respondents were significantly more likely to fish, forage, hunt, can foods and maintain backyard livestock, according to the study.

The team, which includes graduate student Kristen Wirkkala and two other faculty members in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Emily Belarmino and Farryl Bertmann, recently secured funding to conduct several other studies, which will determine whether the trends from 2020 have continued.

One asks respondents whether the cost of licenses might pose a barrier to activities such as hunting and fishing.

Niles said the survey could have other applications, too.

“There might be unique seed-level programs that we could implement to help shoulder the infrastructure costs, for example, of putting in gardens or providing gardening space through community gardens,” she said.

Plots filled up quickly within Burlington’s 14 community gardens, according to Meghan O’Daniel, community garden outreach coordinator for the City of Burlington Parks, Recreation & Waterfront. She said scholarships are available that allow community members to apply for reduced rates.

“That generally covers 50% of the plot fees, which we also have worked really hard to keep accessible, even without the scholarship,” she said. “But it is there for those folks and households who need extra support.”

Both this spring and last, residents reserved the city’s 700 garden plots about a month earlier than normal.

“Plots filled up even faster than last year, and we had a lot of folks who started with us the year before or had been with us for 30-plus years,” O’Daniel said. “Our turnover rate was a lot lower. So there’s just a lot of excitement and a lot of wanting to be in the dirt, growing their own food with that security there.”

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