COVID-19 has permeated every aspect of our lives. And although we all may feel the various impacts somewhat differently, there is one factor that affects us all: food.
Major health, economic, and weather events have the power to upend food access and food security for families around the globe. Restrictions to movement and trade directly impact the ability of each actor within the food system to produce, move, and sell food - reducing global food access. Additionally, negative economic impacts make it more difficult for the consumer to purchase food - reducing food security.
Staring down COVID-19, families living in hunger and poverty are in a vulnerable position as this virus threatens trade, economies, and the food system. It also threatens the flow of food and medical aid to those who have become reliant on it. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) describes it this way: “These people can ill-afford any potential further disruptions to their livelihoods or access to food that COVID-19 might bring.”
“If COVID-19 cases, already present in most world regions, proliferate in the 44 countries that need external food assistance – or in the 53 countries home to 113 million people experiencing acute severe food insecurity, many of whose public health and social protection systems face capacity constraints – the consequences could be drastic,” explains the FAO in a statement.
Forest Gardens = Food Access
While the Coronavirus is novel, the fallout for vulnerable communities is anything but.
In 2009, the Great Recession left an additional 100 million people hungry . During the 2014-2015 Ebola outbreak, families’ ability to harvest and sell food was directly impacted by quarantine and stigma. And the connection between natural disasters and food security has long been a challenge to regional, national, and international leaders.
“Families living in hunger and poverty are disproportionately affected by an event like COVID-19,” explains Trees for the Future Director of Programs Brandy Lellou. “Lack of healthcare and basic sanitation supplies alone puts them behind.”
Trees for the Future (TREES) is a regenerative agriculture nonprofit that is training farmers to establish sustainable agroforestry systems on their land. TREES’ Forest Garden Approach focuses on protecting land, diversifying crops, and optimizing space. Farmers who have previously produced just one or two crops and lived on less than a dollar a day, are soon growing dozens of species that can provide both nutritious meals for the family and plenty to sell at market.
”We’re working toward a long term solution to hunger and poverty, so that when viruses or natural disasters threaten a community, they have the resources and independence to persevere,” Lellou says.
TREES works with farmers in Cameroon, Kenya, Senegal, Tanzania, and Uganda. While these farmers are not immune to the impacts of COVID-19, they are reporting a level of autonomy and stability that suggests the Forest Garden Approach has successfully lifted them out of hunger and poverty, breaking the cycle of poverty and the typical reliance on outside aid.
“I can comfortably stay safe at home, my Forest Garden is my supermarket!!“ says Kenyan Forest Garden farmer Dan Oliech. “TREES has greatly boosted my confidence in farming. I absolutely have no worry on what to eat [even though] the government of Kenya has restricted human movement due to the Covid 19 pandemic.”
The Forest Garden Approach emphasizes crop diversity so that farmers are ensuring nutrient diversity in their diets as well as making sure that they have something to sell year-round. During COVID-19, as countries restrict travel and TREES implores staff and program participants to stay home, these farmers are still able to harvest regular meals from their own property.
“We have protected our Forest Gardens and now they are protecting us from Coronavirus,” says Assistant Technicians Beryle Achieng
"Trees, through the Forest Garden, are our light,” says Lead Farmer Jumanne Mauld. “Our goals will be fulfilled as long as there is coherence [to safety guidelines] in this difficult period of COVID 19.”
What about Income?
Farmers’ ability to go to market and turn a profit is heavily impacted by COVID-19, but fortunately, Trees for the Future Forest Garden farmers have had the opportunity to save.
“When you consider the average impoverished smallholder farmer in the developing world, they are not able to put any money away,” explains Lellou. “They have one or two harvests a year, from which they make very little money, and then they have to use that money to cover the costs of the seeds for the following year. They don’t have the option to save.”
But with a Forest Garden, she says, farmers can. As farmers have harvested their diverse crops throughout the past year, they’ve had the chance to save some of their income for future needs.
“It is encouraging to see farmers smiling and confident during these times,” says Tanzanian Technician Cleophas Ntakije.
Saving is part of the TREES curriculum, ensuring that farmers take the time to learn about money management. TREES also helps communities establish savings clubs so that farming families are able to pool their savings to cover community expenses and emergency needs.
“Lack of income is a very real concern for the farmers we serve and we will continue communicating with regional staff to ensure farmer success,” Lellou says. “But the fact that they’ve had the ability to save before facing this historic pandemic is a testament to the program and our strategy. Farmers are supporting themselves through this crisis - and that’s something to be celebrated.”
Adapting Training During Social Distancing
These farmers have been so successful in Forest Gardening in large part because of the training they’ve received from Trees for the Future. The four-year program takes farmers through everything they need to know about agroforestry, permaculture, organic pest management, economics, and more.
“COVID-19 has tested the way we train and work with farmers,” says Deputy Director of Training Elizabeth Moore. “Farmers are becoming self-sufficient because of the trainings we provide, but social distancing and travel restrictions challenged us to change the way we reach and educate farmers.”
TREES has quickly rolled out a series of training videos to field staff and farmers to provide seasonally important instructions while continuing to follow the leading health and safety guidelines for COVID-19.
“We don’t want farmers to miss the seasonal window to start their tree nursery or plant their vegetable beds, so we’re providing clear video instruction so that they can keep moving through the program and ultimately be successful in their own right,” Lellou says.
Staff are completing the video tutorials this week and have already begun sharing them with farmers via email and WhatsApp.
To learn more about TREES’ training methodology, visit the Forest Garden Training Center at training.trees.org .
Trees for the Future, like any nonprofit organization, relies on donations to fund programming. But the economic implications of COVID-19 greatly impact an organization’s ability to fundraise.
“Vulnerable populations feel the effects of a global health or economic crisis twice,” Leary says. “They feel it in their communities as it happens, and then they feel it again as nonprofit and aid organizations experience reduced funding.”
Thousands of farmers in the Forest Garden program rely on these donations to continue planting trees and training in the TREES program. The organization will continue their fundraising efforts through COVID-19 in an effort to maintain program funding and progress with farmers.
“Our donors make our work possible, we can’t sustainably end hunger, poverty, or deforestation without them,” Leary says. “We’re grateful for all of the support we are receiving through these tough times and will continue doing our best to ensure the health, safety, and resiliency of the farmers we serve.”