Food Is Getting More Expensive. Libraries Are Helping People Grow Their Own.

As the price of groceries increases, “seed libraries” are helping people grow fresh produce in areas affected by food scarcity.
Seed Library at Cleveland Public Library's East 131 Branch.
Photo courtesy of Cleveland Public Library

The price of food is on the rise across the US. Industry data shows Americans are paying on average 10 percent more for food at the grocery store compared to a year ago, and experts predict costs will continue to increase.

Surprisingly, one of the places where people are tackling the problem is public libraries, where volunteers are giving free resources and training to communities affected by food scarcity. The result is known as “seed libraries”—assortments of seed packets that library-goers can “borrow” to plant and grow fresh produce, herbs, and flowers. In areas where fresh food is inaccessible due to cost and distance, seed libraries are helping people grow their own.

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Since the pandemic, there has been more community interest in bringing seed libraries to public libraries to help alleviate barriers of access to healthy foods—especially in places advocates call food apartheid areas, more commonly known as food deserts. 

Food apartheid areas are locations without easy access to fresh, healthy, and affordable foods, particularly in areas with more Black, brown, low-income and indigenous residents. Research shows that people living in food apartheid areas, where they are forced to rely on fast food restaurants, corner stores, dollar stores, or pharmacies are more likely to develop chronic diseases. According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Access Research Atlas, communities in about 10 percent of census tracts have low levels of access to healthy foods. 

One way researchers measure this is by the distance to a store that carries fresh produce, or by the number of stores in the area. An example of a food apartheid area is the Masten District of Buffalo, NY, a majority Black suburb where last week, a racist mass shooting took place at the district’s only supermarket, leaving the store shuttered and the community without access to affordable groceries. Since then, volunteers have begun taking donations for community fridges and other efforts to serve the community while the supermarket is closed.

Several hours from Buffalo, down the coast of Lake Erie, Marina Márquez, a Cleveland Public Library branch manager says the Corlett neighborhood where her branch is located is another food apartheid area that checks all the boxes. 

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“There is no fresh produce,” Márquez told Motherboard. “There’s no grocery store. There’s no access to healthy food in this neighborhood—there just isn’t.”

Even for those making trips to their nearest grocery store, the price of fresh food is exuberant. The latest update to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2022 Food Price Outlook demonstrates that nearly all foods that can be purchased at grocery stores and restaurants are going up in price and that all food prices are predicted to increase between five and six percent this year, including fresh and processed produce. 

Originally created by The Hummingbird Project's Cleveland Seed Bank, Cleveland Public Library’s seed library was established pre-pandemic and has become incredibly popular in the community. Patrons can check out five seed packets per month. These seed packets include things like heirloom tomatoes, basil, and sunflowers. Since it started, the seed library has expanded from five to 10 of the library system’s branches.

“The community is really invested and rooted in their own personal gardens,” she said. “It’s really important that this seed library is here in the community, and it is a well-oiled machine. It’s really well organized, and we simply promote it and champion it.”

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The seed library relies on help from community partners including the Cuyahoga Land Bank and seed distributor High Mowing to keep the seed library supplied. The library also collaborates with other community partners to provide programming for children and teens that teaches them to grow their own food.

How seed libraries operate varies by the library system, with some being more formal than others. Karen Washington, a farmer and activist who co-owns Rise & Root Farm in New York’s lower Hudson Valley, says it’s important that the communities public libraries serve have a say in how the seed libraries manage distribution. 

“These are the processes whereby people have to sign their name and take out a certain amount of seed or…people will be distributed a certain amount of seed during a certain period of time,” Washington told Motherboard. “That input must come from the community on how that seed library is managed and it should not be one-size-fits-all. There should be different ways of how it’s done, but that way has to come from the community if it’s going to impact the community.” 

While Cleveland Public Library takes more of an honor system approach to distribution, at Pima County Public Library locations in Tucson, patrons can reserve seed packets online through the library system’s catalog, and pick them up at their preferred branch location. 

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“Equitable access was our main goal,” Betsy Langley, a managing librarian at one Pima County Public Library location, told Motherboard. “We just wanted to make sure everybody who has a library card can access the same types of materials.” 

To nurture a culture of sharing abundance encourage individuals to take food from those gardens. 

“I’m thinking of sweet peppers, bell peppers … that’s something you can kind of just grab and eat on the go,” said Langley. “Sometimes melons, tomatoes, snap peas, things like that we encourage the community to take what’s ripe and just go for it. It’s just another way to share. We just try to have this mentality of sharing abundance.” 

Since its inception, the Pima County Public Library system has seen seed packet checkouts ranging from 8,000 in the beginning to roughly 27,000 checkouts on average per year. Langley says the popularity of the service has become an access point to build programming by offering events that revolve around gardening and seed saving. 

“It’s a way to use the seed library platform to educate the community or encourage people to try growing,” she said.

Education at seed swap events is one way for libraries to encourage patrons to “return” seeds to libraries from the plants they’ve successfully grown. But libraries are also using seed swaps as a way to help them pivot away from relying on commercial seeds and rather using homegrown seeds as a way to help acclimate plants to the area and mitigate the impacts of food scarcity in a changing climate. 

Going forward, Washington says she would love to see public libraries connect education around seed heritage to the communities they’re serving. 

“Seeds tell a story, tell a history of who you are, a history of your culture which is so so important,” she said. “Look at me as an African American. We brought seeds in our hair and planted the seeds so that this country can eat. That’s a story that’s not told.”