Miss Taney guides me through the vegetation of her small property in Manchester in west central Jamaica, looking back every few seconds as she makes her way through scattered foliage amid the bright orange soil.
Its small frame belies its strength.
For twenty years, during the pandemic, the 83-year-old who drives just over four and a half feet has been the primary caregiver for her large family of 13 children and grandchildren, living on shared property, spread among three small homes.
She tells me about the days when she worked as a farmer alongside her husband, who passed away, leaving her with memories of many years – and a vast knowledge of how her food was grown.
Optimistic, Miss Tiny conveys that there are some silver linings during the pandemic.
Cash that her family received from the Department of Labor and Social Security (MLSS) and the World Food Program (WFP) through the COVID-19 Relief Program is now being used to modernize the old wood and spur outdoor home on her property and her extended family has benefited from 40 pounds of basic foodstuffs, including: That is rice, peas, oil, pasta and salt provided by the Ministry of Social Solidarity and Labor and the World Food Programme.
Even more amusing, however, is that throughout the pandemic, her family has been able to connect their food aid to the food crop yields scattered all over their property – dasheen, ackees, star apples, bananas, greens, and stinky carafe. Despite the meager financial resources, some would say that Miss Tiny is richer than many.
And she is not alone.
During the pandemic, many Jamaicans responded to restrictions on movement and reduced income flows by turning to backyard farming for food security and stress relief.
A multi-stage regional survey conducted by the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the World Food Program in August 2022 found that 15% of households in the region are currently engaged in agriculture for consumption. In the case of Jamaica, the growth of backyard agriculture pitted against the context of social protection that was provided to the most vulnerable, helping to bring about multi-pronged relief during the economic downturn.
According to the February 2022 batch of the CARICOM-WFP survey, 57% of Jamaicans have experienced income disruptions due to the pandemic – the third highest rate in the region, after Trinidad and Tobago and Saint Lucia, with the number of people estimated to be food – doubling security to 400,000 – about 13% Of the population.
In February 2021, the Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA) under then-Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries, Floyd Green, began distributing backyard farming kits throughout Jamaica. The collections contained various seeds, including okra, tomatoes, peas, beans, carrots, onions, cabbage, callaloo, peppers, scallions, a seedling tray, mix, and compost to support and promote the thriving movement.
“We encourage Jamaicans to set aside space in their backyards to produce two to four crops of vegetables per year,” Green said. “We want Jamaicans to be directly involved in growing their own food and we’re taking advantage of the opportunity that has been presented due to COVID-19.”
At that time, more than 2,500 kits were distributed.
And if social media can be seen as a gauge of popular sentiment, backyard farming pages in Jamaica began appearing simultaneously in 2020. One of them, titled Backyard Gardens 2020, has over four thousand followers and an average of 8 posts in a day.
The movement was a welcome development against the backdrop of an almost exclusive reliance on foreign food.
According to the Statistical Institute of Jamaica, Jamaica imported $3,079.6 million in food between 2019 and 2021, the vast majority of which originated in the United States, to supply the tourism and restaurant sector and a population of just under 3 million people. With the global supply shocks of COVID-19 affecting stocks and food prices, and with movement restrictions and job losses that occurred during the pandemic, conditions were very favorable for a shift towards local dining.
Backyard farming has enhanced Jamaican food security by engaging citizens in the growth and consumption of their food, thus saving costs, while enhancing their nutrition, health and well-being, and is in line with Jamaica’s Vision 2030.
The movement produced positive indirect effects on society, relieving food insecurity and supporting economic development.
Just up the hill from Miss Tiny, in an area called Harmons, live the Barnes brothers – Hubert, John and Wilson. None of them are officially employed, and one is blind, leaving them without the means to constantly pay their monthly bills.
But what the brothers lack in financial resources, they make up for in food – and generosity.
Hubert Barnes proudly points out the three spaces to which he and his brothers have dedicated their strength and livelihood.
“Plant plantain, bananas, sweet potatoes, cassava, yam, coconut, sugar…” he continues, describing how the crops grown on their property provided the perfect accompaniment to the large sacks of flour and rice they purchased with COVID assistance received from the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs and the World Food Program.
He continues, “We won’t be able to take advantage of it…we won’t run out.”
The brothers stress that they are happy to give community members food from their possessions and only sell “when necessary” from a financial perspective.
Jamaica provides an excellent case study on the effective use of social protection systems in response to the crisis. Many vulnerable individuals and families across the country have benefited from food and cash assistance provided by the Government of Jamaica during COVID-19 through the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management (ODPEM), the Planning Institute of Jamaica and the Department of Labor and Social Services (MLSS) with support from the World Food Programme.
But some of the most inspiring stories over the past two years have been those of self-sufficiency, particularly in contexts where social protection has been used as a supplement rather than the sole source of income.
In some cases, social protection has been used to help expand backyard farming operations, such as the case of Bearyl Tingle, an active 70-year-old Clarendon woman who took advantage of the MLSS-WFP’s help to grow a pre-existing bird coop. By reinvesting in her chicken business, she was able to keep food on the table and send her niece to college.
“Survival is the key,” she said.
“It’s not about what you do, it’s how you do it, and so as we go and seek to improve production, we are not just looking to continue strengthening in terms of more growth but less wasting … So every inch of the land, said the Agriculture Minister, Pernell Charles Junior, while promoting agricultural efficiency and self-sufficiency at an event in April 2022 to launch the “Grow Smart, Eat Smart” campaign in Jamaica, with the slogan – Food security is everyone’s business.
It was also launched in 2022, at the University of the West Indies’ Caribbean College of Media and Communication (CARIMAC) on the Mona Jamaica campus, The Plant it, keep it The campaign has educated and provided the community with tools for backyard farming with the support of 4-H Clubs of Jamaica (the youth arm of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries) and Farm Up Jamaica.
In addition to promoting self-sufficiency, the backyard farming movement offered young people the opportunity to transcend old notions of farming, incorporating technology, flexibility, and autonomy into what was previously seen as the domain of the “old and the poor.”
In March 2022, Dr Derek Deslands, President of the Jamaica Dairy Development Board (JDDB) noted that the use of technology in backyard farming has provided the nation with an opportunity to overcome traditional obstacles to starting farming.
“Today, backyard farming is not what it used to be,” he said. “Now you have container gardening; rooftop gardening systems you can automate your backyard; you can build hydroponic systems and small systems that can produce lettuce and tomatoes and a whole host of things. We need to start encouraging and showing people [how]. ”
Across both the public and private sectors in Jamaica, the cry has gone out to the community – grow what you eat and eat what you grow.
It has never been easier…or more necessary.