From hand to mouth: thoughts on gardening, food poverty and giving a fig*

Straight from the tree. Close up shot of hand holding freshly picked figs. Image: Su Leslie, 2017. Edited with Snapseed.

Straight from the tree. Today’s fig harvest. Image: Su Leslie, 2017. Edited with Snapseed.

According to contemporary sources (The Free Dictionary, Merriam WebsterThe Cambridge Dictionary), the term “living from hand to mouth” is used to suggest bare survival — getting by on the minimum.

My 25 year old copy of Brewer’s Concise Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (Cassell Publishers, London, 1992), adds a moral dimension with the following:

To live from hand to mouth. Improvidently, without thought for the morrow. The phrase implies the ready consumption of whatever one gets.

I can’t find a reliable source for the phrase (suggestions welcome), but with or without the whiff of moral censure, the term is positively dripping with negative connotations.

Without diminishing the very real suffering of millions of people who are doing it tough and barely surviving in a world of increasing inequality; for a gardener, living hand to mouth can mean something positive — a celebration of the fruits of our labour.

Yet the ability to cultivate a garden is beyond the reach of many, if not most, people. Access to land, tools, seeds — even water — is limited. And those who most need that regular, if small, supply of fresh food, are those most denied it.

So as I give thanks for my handful of figs, and for the beetroot, brassicas, herbs and citrus fruit to come, I also want to acknowledge the efforts of countless individuals and organisations working across the world, in a multitude of innovative ways, to grow and/or distribute fresh food within their communities.

Here are just a few of the initiatives I am aware of in my small part of the world. If you know of such groups in your community, please tell me about them in the comments, or post a link to their websites.

Community Fruit Harvesting. Auckland-based, but increasingly working across NZ to collect surplus and unwanted produce, and distribute — either fresh or as preserves — to charities.

Garden to Table. A New Zealand-wide programme that works with schools to create gardens and teach children to grow, harvest and prepare fresh produce.

Compost Collective. Auckland initiative to reduce organic landfill waste through composting, has become involved with a number of gardening initiatives.

Kelmarna Gardens, Auckland

Wellington City Council Community Gardens

Written for Sally D’s Mobile Photography Challenge at Lens and Pens by Sally.

* For anyone who is unfamiliar with the term “to not give a fig”, The Free Dictionary defines it as to not care.

21 thoughts on “From hand to mouth: thoughts on gardening, food poverty and giving a fig*

  1. I am an avid gardening who believes in hand to mouth, and I hope that your post inspires others. Your image is an apt choice and weds beautifully with your text. Our Farmer’s Market begins this month and will go until the end of November. I attend to supplement my own herb and vegetable gardens. Planning, cultivating, maintaining and harvesting is part of life’s grandest gifts. Of course there is nothing as precious to use in the kitchen as fresh ingredients.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post! In my very small community we have a few great resources. There is a small farmer’s market every Saturday beginning sometime in the summer through the fall. Everyone who brings items to sell generally contributes to fresh food boxes that are then distributed to families in need by their local church leaders. There is also a station set up specifically for local gardeners to bring their surplus to go into these boxes. There is also a community pantry that does home deliveries of surplus fresh items to families in need – these are often donations from local grocery stores that may go to waste. Of course there are bigger, more well known agencies, but I kind of appreciate these two very small, home-grown, unnamed efforts. If all communities had members willing to coordinate this type of sharing the whole world would be so much better!

    (We also have a few free “libraries” around our town – people who have built a weatherproof bookstand in their front yard – that are freely available to anyone. It’s a take one or leave one style. No checking out or returning. It’s a great way to share.)

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks Amberly. I also love the small community initiatives that begin because someone just sees a job that needs doing, and does it. That’s kind of how I remember the communities I grew up in.
      I particularly love that there is a specific place at your market for people to make food donations.
      The free libraries are fantastic too. I’ve seen a few in NZ; though not in people’s front yards. Ours is just outside the local church, and I’ve seen others at village halls and in parks.
      Anything that encourages sharing.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I run past a huge fig tree on my training runs. I’m thinking I might need to carry a bag with me one day. 🙂
    We have similar organisations here to ones you’ve mentioned. Second Bite and OzHarvest pick up surplus food from restaurants and shops to distribute to those in need (the special school I work at gets deliveries of fruit) and the chef Stephanie Alexander has established a school kitchen garden program. There’s so much needless waste, it’s great to see organisations making use of excess to help others.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yum; fresh figs. We have a little reserve at the end of the road with about 20 plum trees. It’s a bit secluded, so not that many people know about it, but there is an unspoken convention that we can all harvest some plums. I take a bag on walks with me — instant breakfast and the raw materials for jam and plum sauce. I like preserving anyway, and always make more than we can eat, but I feel extra compelled to share the plum goodies because I’ve picked “public” fruit.

      I think NZ Garden to Table is either connected with, or at least inspired by the Stephanie Alexander programme. It is such a great idea. And I love that your school gets fruit. Any initiative that improves the health and life chances of kids has to be worthwhile.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I have never come across the improvident definition before and don’t think of it that way. Hand to mouth is just getting by – whatever you earn is necessary for immediate survival. One of the stops on our Women of the Gorbals walk is a community orchard in the Rose Garden (a small park and former graveyard). It doubles as an artwork.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Community Fruit Harvesting. What a great idea. In the suburb where we live there is much fruit on trees, and being largely Italian in origin this fruit is used and preserved. But I hear of so much fruit wasting on trees and rotting on the ground. Some people don’t understand or don’t have the time. Community Fruit Harvesting could be the answer. Thanks 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think that’s exactly how it started. Nice people knocking on doors asking owners with fruit trees if they could take the fallen fruit and give it away. I get that lots of people don’t have time to make preserves, but do like that they are willing to share the produce anyway. The nice thing is that some commercial growers have got on-board, and will often share produce that doesn’t meet commercial standards (a crazy concept in itself). 🙂

      Liked by 3 people

  6. Wonderful post, Su! Those organizations sound great! I don’t know of similar ones here but at least there’s a web page where people can add the locations of fruit trees that are publicly accessible, like in parks or along canals.


      • Our site is called “Mundraub” – a German word meaning that you “only” steal to put it right into your mouth – this used to be common after the war and wasn´t prosecuted. They changed it a couple of years though. I did it once when I was a kid at a fruit sellers and felt so guilty afterwards even though I was told it was okay 😉

        Liked by 2 people

        • It is an interesting concept. I kind of assume that fruit growing on public land should be ok to pick, but I wouldn’t pick flowers in public gardens. But I don’t actually know what the law here is.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Sometimes ignorance can be a bliss 😉 At least it used to be, my great-grandmother used to do all kinds of these things, picking fruit and flowers in public, riding in the first class carriage when she only had a ticket for the third, and always getting away with it like this: “Oh, really? I didn´t know that!” 😀

            Liked by 2 people

          • That’s so funny. I do think that “old ladies” can get away with a lot. Although, in these crazy days, I’m not sure I’d want to try my luck. People aren’t always as nice and understanding as they used to be.

            Liked by 2 people

    • That is a fantastic idea. I have a tiny garden, but even that produces more than enough and I end up giving stuff to friends and neighbours. There is so little extra involved in growing just a bit more, and your programme makes it so worthwhile. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

      Liked by 1 person

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