From Yard to Table – Strengthening Household Food Security in Antigua and Barbuda? – Simone Bishop-Matthews, HCC Intern
The Backyard Gardening (BYG) project was a four-week long initiative in Antigua and Barbuda with a social media component, funded by the World Diabetes Foundation (WDF) Prevention and Care Project. The BYG project aimed to encourage the growth and consumption of locally-grown, healthier foods such as a variety of vegetables, fruits and herbs, for persons living with diabetes and other vulnerable groups.
By promoting self-sufficiency and sustainable practices, this project intended to improve household and local food security and mitigate potential disruptions or threats to the global and imported food supply that may arise during and post-COVID-19. The availability of healthier foods right in one’s own backyard can facilitate better eating choices and low-cost diets for persons living with diabetes, who are among those disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 infection and for households with financial limitations.
Key Stakeholders Involved in its Success
The progress and success of this project in Antigua and Barbuda can be attributed to the support and partnership of the participating families, the Healthy Caribbean Coalition (HCC), the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) Commission, Antigua and Barbuda Diabetes Association (ABDA) and the local Ministry of Health and Wellness and Ministry of Agriculture, Lands, Fisheries and Barbuda Affairs.
Progress Made During the BYG Initiative
The initiative ran from the 16th April to 14th May, 2020. Out of the expected number of 45 participating families, 25-30 households with persons living with diabetes were recruited for the project. Ms. Juanita James, President of the Antigua and Barbuda Diabetes Association (ABDA), who led the BYG project in Antigua and Barbuda, stated that “they used a more focused approach, by recruiting persons with diabetes”.
Participants were provided with seedlings procured from the local nurseries based on in-country availability, the necessary handheld gardening tools, and a printer-friendly booklet with tips for starting and maintaining their backyard gardens.
This initiative was open to experienced and novel gardeners. Technical guidance was provided from a “backyard gardening facilitator” through the Backyard Gardening Programme from the Ministry of Agriculture, on how to maximize their backyard space with elevated beds and plotting soil, where feasible; the facilitator also provided the technical ‘know-how’ for successful gardening. Prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, visits were conducted by the ABDA, the NCD Coordinator from the Ministry of Health and the BYG facilitator, to check on participants and monitor their progress.
A WhatsApp group chat was also created for the participants to stay connected with each other, showcase their gardens and harvests and resolve any questions they may have. The HCC, ABDA and Ministries of Health and Agriculture were able to monitor the project’s progress and provide resources where necessary via the chat. Participants shared pictures and videos of their gardens with different vegetables ranging from spinach, tomatoes, kale, lettuce and seasoning peppers, just to name a few via the group chat. The sense of pride was clearly apparent in their voices as they ‘showed off’ their produce and how they planned to use them.
The BYG project provided a window of opportunity for persons to produce and consume local, homegrown foods. With more persons working from home and/or spending more time at home, “it was something to do” as expressed by Mr. Williams, a BYG participant; the circumstances allowed for more time for participants to tend to their gardens. Many persons utilized container gardening as it proved to be effective and “more manageable” for older persons to combat the challenges of drought. In general, participants stated that planting and tending to their gardens provided “a therapeutic experience, exercise and satisfaction” as stated by Ms. James, and a “relaxing time after work” as expressed by Ms. Peters, a BYG participant. As a result, many of the participants plan to continue gardening and have even planted new, different seedlings in their gardens.
Participants appreciated the less frequent visits to the supermarkets and the reduced spending as most of them admitted that healthy eating is expensive. According to Mr. Williams, growing his own foods is “better than what you get in the supermarket, they eat better and they taste better”. The participants were able to grow basic, local produce organically, without the use of harsh chemicals or fertilizers.
Challenges and Solutions Found
Some of the challenges highlighted, but not applicable to all participants, were unfavourable weather conditions such as drought, worms and other insects eating their produce, inconsistent water availability and lack of time to commit to taking care of their gardens due to work commitments/demands. To rectify some of these issues, persons opted for the use of container gardening, natural pesticides such as neem oil, and filling up of water bottles to secure a water supply.
The COVID-19 pandemic made it difficult to continue home visits and provide physical help to participants. However, according to Ms. James, “some visits were still made to participants who lived close enough”. Nevertheless, the WhatsApp group chat helped to compensate for the lack of physical interaction and provided access to technical support and guidance for the participants.
Conclusions and Recommendations
The unreliable weather conditions in Antigua and Barbuda, namely drought, should continue to be addressed in the maintenance of this BYG project and the implementation of similar projects in other member states. The use of rainwater harvesting and aquaponic systems as seen with the “Alex Happy Greens” initiative in St. Lucia could be adopted as potential solutions to facilitate occasions of drought and limited water access at the household level.
Local food production and consumption must be prioritized and initiatives like this help to mitigate unhealthy diets among households and diet-related NCDs in the Caribbean. Regional and international organizations continue to support and advocate for the need to create more sustainable food systems and improve regional food supply and trade.
It is evident that the project maintained the interests and participation of family members of different ages as participants admitted to continuing their gardening after the project. The technical support provided by the Ministries of Agriculture and Health, and the collaboration with the ABDA, HCC and OECS Commission were major contributors to the success of the BYG project and in addressing any challenges or concerns. This whole-of-society approach must be maintained to encourage the continuation of the backyard gardening and the promotion of self-sustainability and reduced dependence on global food imports in the Caribbean.
Join us on Thursday 1st July, 2021 at 9:00AM – 4:00PM EST for our virtual meeting- Our Food, Our Health, Our People, to hear more about Antigua and Barbuda’s BYG experiences and as well as the complex strategies needed to create healthier food environments by shaping and securing healthy food supplies, safeguarding and fostering healthy food policymaking and supporting civic action.