Foodscapes in times of uncertainty – blog 2

The Transformative Power of Gardening: food literacy, connection and environmentally sustainable choices during COVID19

By Jessica Breslau and Sofie de Wit

Sparked by the covid19 pandemic food supply chains have been disrupted: food is more scarce, expensive, and difficult to access than before (OECD, June 2, 2020). Simultaneously, the pandemic has increased the number of people participating in home and community gardening (Polansek and Walljasper, 2020). One of the reasons for this transition may be people losing their jobs, having less disposable income to spend on food. Additionally, as people spend more time at home due to the crisis, home gardening became more accessible. Some scholars also identified gardening as a therapeutic act that brings tranquillity during times of stress (Bratman G.N. et al. 2019). As such, the current global circumstances remind us of the therapeutic and educational potential of gardening, particularly regarding individuals’ relationships to their food and how this translates to food consumption patterns (Kellaway, 2020; Wang and MacMillan, 2013). 

Last June, we conducted research that seeks to understand if and how access to gardening has the potential to increase food literacy (1). For this research we focused on several attributes of food literacy including food knowledge, nutrition knowledge, food systems, food skills, food self-efficacy, eating practices, and dietary behaviour (see Figure 1). By applying a broad conceptualization of food literacy we aimed to gain understanding of an individual’s relationship to food, not only by looking at personal health and wellbeing, but also by taking into account awareness of environmentally sustainable food choices, such as decreased intake of meat, dairy and/or seafood products, and increased consumption of locally and regeneratively produced food products.

Figure 1: Attributes of food literacy (Grubb and Vogl, 2019)

We used the transformative power of nature as a theoretical framework to study how spending time in nature and working with one’s hands might create a connection to one’s food, and may reproduce the desire to learn more about nutrition and gardening. This theory focuses on gardening as a way for people to reintegrate with nature and to establish new relationships with their food, the earth, and the community (Sacks, 2019). The local context we focused on was community gardens in and around Wageningen. We looked at the ways in which community gardening can increase food literacy by: (1) improving knowledge of food production; (2) increasing fruit and vegetable intake; (3) increasing physical activity; (4) improving dietary diversity; (5) contributing to mental health (6) strengthening food security; (7) exchanging knowledge and information between community gardeners (i.e. socialization); and (8) increasing awareness of sustainable production and consumption (Grubb and Vogl, 2019; Algert et al., 2016; Wang and MacMillan, 2013).

Our results show that participation in community gardens in Wageningen has contributed to a comprehensive understanding of one’s own nutrition and food system, thereby increasing food literacy. Through participant observation at multiple community gardens and a variety of formal and informal, semi-structured interviews, we were able to construct the ways in which gardening has shifted participants’ perspectives and actions surrounding the food that they grow, procure, and eat. Participation in community gardening has contributed to an increase in food knowledge, nutritional knowledge, engagement in food systems, food skills, food self-efficacy, and healthier eating practices. Many participants felt that gardening had altered the way in which they view and interact with their food. The majority of people we spoke to said that the food they grew tasted better than the food that they were able to buy at the supermarket, that they wasted less food as they now understood the care and labour involved in growing food, and that they’re more cognisant of where and under what conditions their food is grown. They also became more aware of the variety of crops that exist, and what impact particular gardening practices have on the environment. Additionally, although the community gardens had no strict regulations, all participants of this research were engaged in organic gardening practices. Understanding and making explicit those aspects of gardening that have impacted people’s relationships to food may help to make clear how engagement in gardening can improve food consumption patterns including the specific connection to more sustainable food procurement.  

Taking into account our limited sample size and Wageningen being a rural town with a specific population, it is difficult to establish whether gardening will have similar effects on people’s relationships to food in different contexts and different populations. Nevertheless, our research has shown that gardening has the power to contribute to promoting sustainable food production and diets. Various participants explained that they often take their (grand)children with them to the gardens and teach them about food production while working together. In this way not only (older) adults, but also children are introduced to nature as a place that should be conserved, cared for, and interacted with. The transformative power of nature can thus enable people to reconnect with, and appreciate, nature.

Gardening is not a panacea for health and sustainability related issues. Firstly, the transformative potential of gardening might be regarded as a white-washed narrative, as working with one’s hands and being in contact with nature can easily be romanticised (Guthman, 2008; Alkon and Guthman, 2017). Second, in order to garden people need access to a garden or a patch of land, and the time and know-how to engage in gardening: these are barriers to entry. Nevertheless, community gardening can be part of an approach to improve health and raise environmental awareness. It can be regarded as an educational tool – one without an agenda on how people should behave or eat – to expand implicit and explicit knowledge of food production, seasonal foods, sustainability, and food preparation. 

1 Food literacy refers to a spectrum of “food-related skills, knowledge and attitudes that promote personal health and wellbeing” (Grubb and Vogl, 2019: 2). Proper food literacy is associated with high consciousness of healthy and environmentally sustainable food related choices (Grubb and Vogl, 2019).

References