by Larry Floersch
There is talk in Washington these days about the possibility of cutting back the budgets for SNAP (formerly known as Food Stamps) and similar social support programs. Such cuts could be devastating to the many children and elderly persons (they constitute over half of all SNAP beneficiaries) and hard-working but poor Americans who are “food insecure.” Such attempts must be vigorously resisted.
The recent hurricanes in Texas and Florida, and the resulting disruptions to the supply chains for food, point out how close all of us really are to food insecurity. We as a society have become reliant on our transportation system, industrialized farming and processed food to keep us fed, but those systems can be easily disrupted by natural events — storms, drought, wild fires, crop failures.
There have been other times in our nation’s history when food insecurity was rampant. The most obvious was the Great Depression of the 1930s with its bread lines and soup kitchens. Of course, back then “food insecurity” was called by another, less euphemistic name: hunger.
But things were a little different back then. Our grandparents and great-grandparents who weathered that event had slightly different skill sets than we do today. Back then there seemed to be more “makers.”
My grandmother, who was a farm wife, made bread for the week every Monday, and on Tuesday she made the butter for that bread. She made jams when there were berries, and pickles when the cucumbers in her large garden came in. My grandfather slaughtered, butchered and froze his own beef cattle, pigs and chickens. Oh, and he built his own house.
My other set of grandparents lived in the city, a big city. They didn’t have access to a garden, but my grandfather was a hunter and fisherman, so the freezer was kept full of rabbits, pheasants and fish. My grandmother, like her counterpart on the farm, canned and pickled when she could get her hands on produce.
People like my grandparents were not uncommon. There were perhaps millions of them across the country, all just doing what they could to get by, to avoid as best they could “food insecurity.” (For example, the cooperative store in the hamlet of Adamant was formed during the Great Depression to help residents avoid such insecurity.)
Just the other evening, I looked out the kitchen window and noticed that the crab apple tree had ripe fruit. There were also ripe rose hips for the taking. And staghorn sumac. And apple “drops.” (I have a friend, a former NPR commentator, who exclusively makes her apple pies from drops. She considers it a sacrilege to use store-bought apples.)
Autumn is, of course, the harvest season, with an abundance of produce and fruit. But it got me to thinking about the other seasons. There are the common edible weeds “lamb’s quarters” (Chenopodium album) and dandelion in summer. And there are ramps and fiddlehead ferns in the spring. This brief list only touches the surface of what is naturally available.
In other words, there is food all around us for three seasons of the year. But we Americans have largely forgotten how to forage.
And food can be preserved for winter through freezing, canning, drying and pickling. (One of my most valued cookbooks has been “Putting Food By” by Hertzberg, Greene and Vaughan). The food sources and preserving techniques that were common among homesteaders and farm families and even today among the Amish are becoming lost to the modern world. We have become a convenience culture and such activities are labor-intensive.
Certainly foraging and “putting food by” are not in themselves solutions to cuts to the social safety net or disruptions to the chain of food supplies. Still, there is much wisdom in the proverb, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and he can feed himself for a lifetime.” As government funding ebbs and flows and the effects of climate change increasingly impact our lives, it is time for us all to relearn how to “fish.”