Ten jars of salsa sit on Robin Forshee’s kitchen counter. She wipes the cans down with a dishrag. Some of them are still warm from being in the canning pot earlier in the day. In her freezer, Robin has Ziplock bags full of frozen dill popsicles and basil ice cubes. She keeps her herbs frozen in single-serving ice so she can simply reach in and pluck one out at a time, let it thaw, or drop it straight into a pot of cooking soup. She says she learned it from her grandmother, a Cherokee Indian.
Robin can garden. She can grow things because she’s always grown some of her food, since her childhood on a farm to her adult life gardening in her house’s yard in Glade Spring, TN. Everyone in her family grew their vegetables and canned them and made ice cube popsicles out of them.
But Robin did not grow the basil, dill, or the salsa’s three different peppers in a conventional garden. They came from a tiny, prolific Earth Box standing on her front stoop. The size of a standard window box, the Earth Box makes a neat, tiny garden island on the patio’s square of concrete and aluminum railing overlooking the apartment complex’s parking lot.
Robin is disabled. She’s had six knee surgeries resulting from a degenerative disc disease. She doesn’t own a car and she lives in an affordable, low-income-housing apartment about a mile outside of the historic downtown of Abingdon, VA. Some days the pain is so bad that she can’t get out of bed. There’s a farmer’s market in town on Tuesdays and Saturdays but the transit bus stops running on Tuesday, just as the market gets started and it doesn’t run at all on Saturday. So Robin is left to find rides to the market or simply take the transit bus to the conventional grocery store.
2012 is the first year of the Earth Boxes for Appalachian Sustainable Development (ASD), a non-profit since 1995 that seeks ways to connect, educate, and improve food access for communities in southwest Virginia and northeast Tennessee. Their “Healthy Families, Family Farms” (HFFF) is the branch that provided Earth Boxes to low-income, disabled individuals. Two other residents of Robin’s apartment complex have the boxes on their porches and a total of seventeen Earth Boxes have been distributed. A volunteer trainer arrives with the box to help set it up, fill it with soil, and prepare it for planting.
The Earth Boxes represent a distant ripple from the USDA's Community Food Project (CFP) grant that Appalachian Sustainable Development received in 2005 to, among other things, increase access to fresh food for low-income households and support farm business in the area. Much of that effort fell into the hands of ASD’s “Healthy Families, Family Farms” initiative. HFFF raises money to purchase fresh local produce from southwest Virginia farmers in order to distribute it to low-income residents through the local food pantries of Feeding America. The idea is to feed the hungry while supporting local producers.
HFFF distributes their produce to thirty-one food pantries. Robin visits her Faith-in-Action food pantry regularly. She doesn’t qualify for the SNAP card benefits (she makes $3 over the allowable income per month), but her low income does render her eligible to purchase from the food pantry. She saw a display for the Earth Boxes in spring of 2012 and she inquired about them. They suited her needs perfectly; she could fit it onto her small porch and she could access it without bending or using stairs. And so Robin ran with it.
Robin goes out to the box each day, sometimes multiple times. She waters after sunset, like they did growing up. She knocks on wood when she says she’s had no trouble with bugs. She’s hoping for a fall planting, but for now she’s putting away as much as she can with the first year’s bumper summer crop. She’s even got enough to share with her neighbors, just like her family used to do within their farm community. Mostly, though, she smiles when she talks about her plants.