Urban Gardener Indy Srinath Talks About Self-Reliance In The Covid Age

By every indication, our country is not handling COVID-19 particularly well. Thanks to a raging culture war over face masks, and a President who prefers wishing away the virus to taking a science-first approach, it’s safe to say we’ve mangled this thing pretty horribly. It seems almost inevitable that we’ll soon enter a second lockdown, as states begin to roll-back their overly-ambitious reopenings.

If you spent the majority of the last quarantine in a state of constant panic — rather than using that time to take on a new DIY project or baking some damn sourdough — you’ll likely get a second crack at it. The era of self-reliance is upon us. As such, we’re seeking out inspiring voices to offer advice on how we can become more independent and resourceful in this difficult era. And one of the first names on our list was educator, permaculturist, and urban gardener Indy Srinath.

Through her experience managing a community garden in Ashville, North Carolina, her superb eye for photography, and a distinct ability to marry the Instagram aesthetic with thoughtful teaching and resources, Srinath has carved a path for herself in the DIY and foraging space. We spoke with her over the phone about how taking control of where you get your food improves not only your health but your connection to your community. She also offered easy advice for how every one of us can experiment with urban gardening, even if you have absolutely no land to grow on.

Indy Srinath

Given that we’re all living in the midst of a global pandemic, why is now the best time to become self-reliant and take control of where and how we get our food?

Now, like any other time really, it’s important to consolidate our food systems because that in its essence helps reduce the spread of Covid-19. By keeping your food sources contained within your community, you’re really reducing the number of folks that come into your area and distribute food, and you’re also able to consume more nutrient-dense food. When you’re eating it fresher, you’re not having that degraded-nutrient quality of foods that are prepackaged and have been sitting in a cooler for who knows how long. You’re able to eat it right out of your backyard! Also now is a time when we should be boosting our immune systems.

What would you say to those of us who are living in food deserts or big cities, how can we introduce fresher foods into our diet?

Even if you don’t have access to a large amount of land or a small amount of land, you can start growing your own food in containers that are as small as a yogurt cup. Just work with whatever you have and purchase a packet of seeds, pick something that has a quick harvest and turnover rate. Radishes are one of my favorites and they can be grown in a really small windowsill or if you have access to a porch. Finding ways to start growing with whatever size or scale you have available is the best way to approach that.

On your Instagram you talk a lot about balancing your passions with necessary activism. How can everyone involve themselves in an activist lifestyle?

I think that activism can start with really small acts — especially if you’re an introverted person like myself — it can be as simple as writing a letter to your congressperson or going to your local smoothie shop and asking them if they would be interested in switching from styrofoam cups to reusable or compostable plastic cups. Doing small activist movements, and small activist activities like that can make a huge impact.

It’s really important to voice your opinion because having sovereignty over your food and food sources and over the planet is really how you make a change. There is nothing too small to be impactful.

Could you speak a little bit more about food sovereignty?

Growing your own food and taking control of where your food sources come from gives you a sense of empowerment and a connection to the planet. There are so many ways that mass media tries to push a food agenda that is unhealthy onto folks. Moving away from pre-packaged food into raw produce impacts your health in a positive way and also just gives you the basic survival tools that a human needs to survive.

On your Instagram it appears you’ve connected the Black Lives Matter movement with environmentalism, arguing the two are intertwined. Can you speak on that relationship a little?

That’s one of the platforms I’m most passionate about, because black people and people of color in general in this country are the ones who made the soil what it is today. We have just as much right, if not more right, than any other person to have access to land and to grow our own food. When folks from African countries were brought to the Americas and enslaved and forced to farm this land — to move away from that is not helpful to black folks as a community. Not eating fresh produce and not eating healthy foods causes a lot of the health disparities that we see in the black community. Getting back to this land and getting back to growing food is something that all black folks should take into account. We own this land and have the right to grow food on it.

Why is living off the land a skill everyone should learn?

Watching something super small grow before your eyes, and watering it every day and fertilizing it and taking care of it gives you a sense of place in the world and it’s really healing to work with the soul. It’s empowering because having that self-sufficiency, where you don’t need to rely on grocery stores and markets that don’t necessarily have your best food interests in mind, moving away from those feels to me like a radical act.

Indy Srinath

Let’s talk foraging. What kind of resources are out there for people who want to explore foraging more but are afraid of accidentally consuming some sort of poison?

I think foraging is really incredible because there is so much food available that is literally just growing off trees and coming off of the ground and it’s there to be consumed. Educating yourself on what plants grow around you and what trees grow around you and what foods are available for free is a really great way to combat some of the health disparities that we see from not having access to fresh food.

For folks that feel a little bit timid about foraging and don’t feel very comfortable with plant identification, I really encourage folks to find local educators in your area, especially indigenous people, and black people, and people of color that offer classes in teaching foraging. Learning from your community members is one of the best ways you can get into foraging.

You’re a big mushroom enthusiast, what do you love so much about them, and can you speak to your experience foraging them?

I really love foraging for edible mushrooms because they are often overlooked and they’re a huge part of soil ecology. They make the life cycle of all other plants possible. I love their vibrant variety. The research that it takes to find mushrooms and how you have to kind of read the forest to figure out where they grow. It’s just something I like to nerd out on.

Do you have basic tips for how people can be more sustainable on their next market run?

It’s super important to start in the produce section and work your way through the grocery store after that. Fill up the button of your cart with unpackaged fresh produce. Try to find produce that is locally grown. Trade out the spinach you would see in a bag for the fresh head of spinach in the mister area. See how many veggies you can fit in your cart, then go for the grains, then go for the other packaged foods that you can build meals around, with your produce as your basic staple.

What about dealing with those little plastics we slip loose vegetables into?

I always repurpose plastic bags that spinach or kale comes in if I end up having to choose one of those. I will totally put a sandwich in them and take them to work and use it like someone would use a plastic zip lock bag. Those plastics can be used multiple times before they begin degrading. You should come from an angle at home where you imagine what it’s like if you didn’t have access to a trash can. Trying to reuse every piece of plastic that you bring into your house. From yogurt containers to the little plastic cups that strawberries and berries tend to come in.

Right now everyone is taking the time to learn new skills or improve themselves, what new challenges or skills are you trying to take on and learn in this time of quarantine?

I’ve been trying really hard to learn more ways that Indigenous folks, specifically in the Americas, grew food, and trying to honor a lot of different individuals who are the fathers and grandmothers of agriculture. Further educating myself on Indigenous folks in America. I’ve been learning a lot more about indoor mushroom cultivation. I come from an outdoor mushroom cultivation background but since I’ve been sheltering in place I’ve been growing oyster mushrooms inside and that’s been really fun.