“What are you planting?” she asked.  This was fifteen years ago in a quiet South Bend suburb, where lawns stretched nearly seamlessly between houses.  Between the begonias and perennials, I explained to my inquisitive neighbor, were tomatoes, peppers and strawberries.  At the center stood an elegant, wrought-iron obelisk supporting cucumber and morning glory vines. “Vegetables?” she snorted, “that’s kind of hillbilly, isn’t it?”  Later that season, when I shared with her family my strawberries and cherry tomatoes, she acknowledged my vegetable/flower garden was pretty.   However, her earlier comment often made me wonder why there was derision for growing food-bearing plants.

I was reminded of this incident while researching urban chicken ordinances.  City dwellers in South Bend once commonly grew their own produce and kept livestock for draft work and food.    James Oliver, owner of the Oliver Chilled Plow Works, offered a $50 gold coin to the employee with the highest-yielding vegetable garden.   Some older homes in South Bend still sport backyard henhouses and locals recall grandparents who kept little flocks of laying hens.   When did “self-sufficiency” become “hillbilly”?

In the mid-twentieth century, affluence and the extraction of fossil fuels allowed wealthier urban dwellers to buy, rather than grow food.  People who continued to raise and grow their own food tended to have limited financial resources.  These families were effectively marginalized by ostracizing neighbors and the criminalization of livestock within city limits.  Framing the enactment of across-the board livestock bans as a “public sanitation” issue cloaked the truth of class discrimination against the poor.  If public sanitation and disturbance were truly the concerns, why did city officials forbid ownership of livestock and not of dogs?   The answer, it seems, is that dogs, though carriers of disease and capable of egregious aggression and nuisance behaviors, were and still are owned by the haves and have-nots.  

Of the bans on livestock within the city, surely the hardest blow for the poor was the prohibition against laying hens.  Without this important source of protein from eggs and meat as well as fertilizer for vegetable gardens, these South Bend residents must have suffered greatly.   Furthermore, attempting to grow vegetables on their city lots likely met with resistance from neighbors who, like mine, scoffed at this “uncultured” activity.  This left few options for poorer folks, who, with the loss of urban gardening, bore the brunt of the fragmentation of communities.  No longer would the widow whose hens had an abundance of eggs connect with her neighbor who had a bumper crop of green beans.

Today, almost everyone works a job to buy food from faceless mega-corporations; food our predecessors raised themselves on fertile soil now languishing beneath sterile box stores and parking lots.  As we awaken to the problems caused by our crippling reliance on fossil fuels for food production and delivery, vegetable gardens are spreading across our city again.  Neighbors are connecting in beautiful ways as they re-discover the miracle of growing food.  I support these gardens as well as efforts to allow city residents to keep a small number of laying hens.  People who grow their own food should not be viewed negatively but should be supported as part of the solution towards independence and self-sufficiency.