If you got into gardening, hunting or foraging during the pandemic, you are not alone.
Research from the University of Maine and the University of Vermont discovered that residents in their respective states have grown, fished, raised, foraged or hunted more of their own food during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Most Mainers weren’t just looking for a new hobby, though — they were seeking new ways to feed themselves and their families.
According to survey data collected by the National Food Access and COVID Research Team (NFACT), 56 percent of households in Maine either increased their amount of home food production or began sourcing their own food for the first time since the pandemic began. Those activities included gardening, canning, foraging and raising livestock for meat, dairy and eggs.
Rick Harris of South Portland was one of the many Mainers who started growing his family’s food at the start of the pandemic. He actually received his first potted pepper plants as a gift for Father’s Day in 2019, but after the pandemic began he made growing food more of a full-time project. He put in raised beds to experiment with growing cucumbers, tomatoes, beans and peas in addition to peppers.
“I began pickling cucumbers, making salsas and canning them and began making hot sauces,” Harris said. “The motivation for starting the real growing was the pandemic and concerns about food supply, and having lost a good paying job in 2019, I was also concerned about the cost of buying things.”
Harris said his homemade pickles and salsa are much less expensive than store-bought products and making good hot sauces is even cheaper.
“I found that my stuff was actually quite good,” Harris said.
Makayla Parsons Hitchcock of Bar Harbor and her husband started growing because the pandemic made them even more conscious of their health.
“The biggest motivator in starting to garden during the pandemic was to have access to fresh, home-grown fruits and veggies,” Hitchock said. “Another motivator is the reward you get out of knowing the food you are eating came from your backyard and isn’t treated with pesticides or other harmful chemicals. The pandemic was a huge wakeup call that we all must be healthier, especially when it comes to the food we are consuming.”
Still, the research showed that food insecurity played a big part in why Mainers started growing their own food. Food insecurity in Maine and Vermont remains higher than pre-pandemic levels, affecting more than 27 percent of households in both states.
“COVID had an effect on food insecurity in the state for all of these different reasons,” Rachel Schattman, assistant professor of sustainable agriculture at University of Maine and co-author of the policy brief on the surveys’ findings. “We saw a recovery, but we’re not back to pre-pandemic levels yet.”
In addition to growing their own food, food insecure households in Maine and Vermont were also more likely to increase their home food production, or rely on salvaging, sharing and bartering, compared to food secure households.
However, these food insecure households were also significantly more likely than before the pandemic to purchase food from local farm sources. Those include farmers markets, farm stands and Community Supported Agriculture, or CSAs. Schattman hopes the findings will help reframe how Mainers think about food insecurity.
“There are these commonly held assumptions that people with limited resources don’t have access to local food resources, like farmers markets and CSAs,” Schattman said. “There is [also] actually quite a large proportion of people who we would consider food insecure that are invested in their own home food production.”
Schattman said the team will continue to survey Mainers and other New Englanders into 2022, and maybe even beyond, to see how the pandemic is impacting how Mainers feed themselves and their families.
So far, the data indicate that the homegrown approach to food security is more than a passing fad.
“It’s telling us there’s going to be a sustained interest,” Schattman said. “One of the things we asked is, do you intend to keep doing this [and] a lot of people said yes.”
There are state programs that teach people how to can food, how to garden and how to obtain hunting licenses. The sale of resident hunting licenses increased by 8.2 percent during 2020 and that number is expected to rise again this year.
“Thinking about how well those programs are supported, who they target, where they’re offered — these are things that we’re learning from this work,” Schattman said. “We really need to use all the tools available to us.”
Harris believes he will continue growing his own food long after the pandemic finally ends, whenever that may be.
“I will definitely continue this over the next few years as it’s a really fun hobby and may be a good way to make some extra money in my retirement,” Harris said. “It started out as something productive to do during a brief time of unemployment and has turned into a productive hobby that may turn into something more.”