On home turf: resilience of localised production and informal networks

  • Central and Eastern European countries provide valuable insights for any city undergoing rapid change
  • Understand what home growing means to people rather than expecting it to fit your expectations

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Is it time to rethink how we address food resilience? In their recent paper, Petr Jehlička, Petr Daněk, and Jan Vávra unpick the idea that home gardening, home-grown food, or food self-provisioning is only a coping strategy for those hit with hard times. Rather, they suggest that home growing should be understood as part of a set of practices that increase food security and enhance resilience.

Making home growing visible

To explore this, the researchers carried out a large-scale survey of over 2000 households in the Czech Republic. They looked at topics such as access to land, where food in households was sourced, amount of home-grown food, social interactions related to food production and sharing, and the size of these networks. This was the second survey done by the authors. The first, in 2010, initially showed the depth of often overlooked informal home gardening practices. This second confirmed the first findings, along with how widespread, but often culturally invisible, everyday food practices are.

Results showed that 38% of households produce food, and that 64% of these share their produce with others. This applied to both rural and urban households – 60% of rural households produce food, as do 25% of urban households. The major discrepancy between these was identified as access to land.

For many people, home growing is a secondary source of food. For instance, it represents up to 41% of vegetables, 40% of fruit, and 38% of eggs in food-producing households (excluding professional farmers). This is significantly higher than in Western European countries, where numbers are often below 10%.

Home growing is also not just practice of disadvantaged households or neighbourhoods. Instead, almost all socio-economic brackets practice such an activity. Seniors are often more active than students, which the researchers ascribe to time constraints.

Forthcoming research suggests that people often underestimate how much work they do to produce food, how much food is actually produced, and how much is shared. These practices are part of daily routines, and embedded deeply in social interactions. For those interested in small-scale production this is particularly encouraging, as it may be that people are contributing more to local sustainability than previously suggested.

Finally, the authors found that sharing produce was particularly prevalent, and driven primarily through altruistic motivations. The majority of food producing households share what they produce, and do not reflect a rich-to-poor dynamic. Older people are notably active, and food sharing is not constrained by kinship. They also found that sharing strengthens social relations, including trust, which contributes to social resilience.

Czech your prejudice

Historically, home growing has been considered passive or defensive, used by marginalised communities as a survival mechanism, rather than a proactive move towards sustainability. More recently, such practices have been reassessed, along with other informal food practices, and are now being viewed as transformative action taken by some who are challenging the industrialised capitalist food system.

So, what does the survey show in the Czech Republic? The authors found that, rather than home growing and sharing being a strategy driven by economic necessity, participants are driven by non-economic desires, including fresh or healthy food and social connections.

Jehlička et al. note that many of the countries and communities in Eastern Europe that took major hits to their economy managed to adapt and bounce back. Home growing played a role in this, as people increased the use of gardens or plots of land to produce food. Additionally, rather than seeing increased food production as a passive response to regime change, they argue that people use these as private spaces to feel normal and in control.

As such, home growing contributes to social resilience in such countries. Slow-moving incremental change that happens in informal, small-scale spaces (like families, local communities, etc.) helps society respond to shocks or upheaval, and build capacity for them to weather the change. Previous studies that had engaged with resilience thinking tended to class post-socialist societies as having lost, and never regained, pre-disturbance capacity. This research shows that home growing may have helped people to bounce back.

Learning from others

The Czech Republic is simultaneously in the European Union – therefore representing the Global North – but on its eastern margins – therefore considered marginal to it. Exploring themes of resilience and food practices in such a country breaks from the traditional North/South binary, challenging the notion that academically marginal regions cannot provide important insights.

The authors suggest that results from such countries may be relevant for food research and practice in countries outside the European Union which are also undergoing rapid change. They are also particularly keen to ensure that knowledge produced in such countries should be more broadly accessed and disseminated. Their research shows how important it is to identify and explore a wide range of practices and regions, not simply western-style project-based initiatives. Research and practice originating in Central and Eastern Europe, island states, African countries, etc. should not be an appendix, but rather be symmetric, a rich source of ideas, inspiration, and utterly relevant stories to anyone working in food.

Food for thought

From a food policy perspective, the article shows that a single practice, in this case food self-provisioning, can be conceptualised in very different ways. Be wary of assuming a single perspective is the only one. The paper highlights the importance of understanding what a practice means to the people practicing it, rather than interpreting it and expecting it to fit your expectations. Home growing is informal, not project-based, and often overlooked in research and policy. But it may, especially in Eastern Europe countries, play a bigger role in social resilience than previously thought, and may contribute tangibly to sustainability transitions.


Emma Burnett – October 2018

Urban Food Futures would like to thank Petr Jehlička for his inputs and comments.

Source : Petr Jehlička, Petr Daněk & Jan Vávra (2018) Rethinking resilience: home gardening, food sharing and everyday resistance, Canadian Journal of Development Studies / Revue canadienne d’études du développement

Picture credits: Pixabay., Icons: The Noun Project

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