Cork GIY activist: We want growing your own food to be the norm

As the COVID-19 restrictions are encouraging people to turn to gardening, ELLIE O’BYRNE catches up with RTÉ’s Grow Cook Eat presenter, Karen O’Donohoe
Cork GIY activist: We want growing your own food to be the norm
Karen O'Donoghue. Picture Colin Shanahan

WHILE Karen O’Donohoe and her TV co-host Michael Kelly were shooting the third series of their farm-to-fork food programme, Grow Cook Eat, they could have no idea that Ireland was heading into the strange times we currently find ourselves in.

And they had no idea that their message would become more relevant than ever before, as Irish people turn to gardening and cooking as solace amidst the Coronavirus lockdown.

“It’s a slightly odd feeling; we’ve always been very proud of our programme and we’ve always known that it had relevance,” Karen, who lives near Ballymacoda in East Cork, says.

“We’ve always positioned it in the reality of whatever conditions we’re facing, but nothing could have prepared us for this.

“We filmed it last year; who could possibly have foretold that it would be broadcast at a time when people were in such need of a distraction, an activity to do with their children, and a really practical achievable activity that can support their health and wellbeing, at a time when that must be an absolute priority?”

With early concerns about panic-buying in the major retailers now seemingly allayed, it’s still clear that the Coronavirus has led to a heightened awareness of things like self-sufficiency and food security. Karen hopes that this upsurge in interest will outlive the crisis to become part of a “new normal”.

“This is a time for us to get back to basics and realise that we have an opportunity, albeit in the most uncertain of times, to hit the reset button,” Karen says.

“We can start making changes around how we view food, how we value it, how much we spend on it, how we prioritise it, and whether or not we grow some of our own food.

“We’re being asked to be really mindful of healthcare workers and those on the frontline in public health during this crisis, but this too shall pass.

“And then it will be time for us to look at those who are at the frontline of food, who are forgotten and really unsung and not supported: they are the dairy farmers, the people who are making really good bread, growing our vegetables, making cheese.”

Karen, who grew up in Kildare and Dublin and lived in the UK for years, had grandparents who came from Ladysbridge; when she moved back to Ireland, she settled in East Cork and began to work with the Waterford-based social enterprise GIY (Grow It Yourself), which was founded by Micheal Kelly.

Now Head of Community Development with GIY, as well as Michael’s Grow Cook Eat co-host, Karen says she “took the scenic route” into the work she is now so passionate about.

Karen Donohoe, at Hanako Flowers in Grow Cook Eat.
Karen Donohoe, at Hanako Flowers in Grow Cook Eat.

“It was really only when I did a Masters as a mature student in Bristol University in physical activity, nutrition and public health that I really came into my own and found my interest in people and their potential to affect huge change on themselves and their communities and the environment through food and exercise,” Karen says.

“I organised a farmer’s market at the university and did a lot of work around student health and got involved in an allotment. When we moved back to Ireland in 2012, I became directly involved with GIY.”

As mum to Dylan, aged 10, and Saoirse, aged seven, Karen has found her interest in food activism has deepened even further.

“It’s made me even more aware of how important it is to be healthy and well myself, as their mom, and to ensure I instill really good habits into them, and to teach them life skills around food,” she says.

“Ultimately, not only are they the next generation for this planet, but they’re the next generation of consumers and entrepreneurs and influencers and decision-makers. So I want to make sure they’re equipped to make the right decisions.”

GIY was founded by Dunmore East man Michael around the core belief that growing food is for everyone, and the movement got an enormous boost with the opening of GIY HQ on the outskirts of Waterford city in 2016: the enterprise is now homed in a dedicated veg garden, award-winning café, shop and education centre.

There are still challenges to getting the GIY message out, Karen says. And the answer lies in everyone getting their hands dirty.

“I think gardening in general, and food growing, had been perceived as something for older people and then it became very popular and a little bit hipsterish,” Karen says.

“What we want is for it to become mainstream: to become normal.

“What happened to our food system was that the abnormal became normal. It became normal to get whatever food we wanted, whenever we wanted at a really cheap price. There’s no such thing as cheap food: someone somewhere is paying the price.

“It became normal to eat food produced by people who were not getting paid a fair price to produce it, including Irish farmers.

“You’re not supposed to eat strawberries in December. If you do, they’ve been flown in from somewhere, covered in chemicals, then plastic, to sit in that fridge for you to come and get them. So we need to redefine normal.

“When you grow some of your own food or support a local producer through a farmer’s market or through Neighbourfood or however you do it, it will make you reprioritise food.”

Karen O'Donoghue and Michael Kelly of GROW COOK EAT. Picture: Colin Shanahan
Karen O'Donoghue and Michael Kelly of GROW COOK EAT. Picture: Colin Shanahan

Green Party leader Éamon Ryan drew the derision of the nation when, giving an address in the Dáil about the Covid-19 situation, he said Irish window-sills should be being used to grow lettuce.

But Karen says, while it’s not the way to feed a nation faced with food shortages, any and all food growing is a therapeutic boost in times of stress.

“Sure, to be fully self-sufficient or to feed the masses you need a lot of space, but to do some bit of food growing, all you need is a balcony or a windowsill,” she says.

“Anything to get your hands in the soil and have the physical and mental benefits of growing your own food.

“You can do an awful lot in 15 minutes and the reality is at the moment people have the time if they choose how to spend it.”

With Grow Cook Eat back on Irish TV screens for the rest of the spring, Karen has fond memories of shooting the series.

“It was fantastic fun,” she says. “It’s the most amazing opportunity to rock around this country of ours and see behind the scenes with a variety of different growers.

“Mick and I take it seriously because we’re conscious that we’re in a really privileged position; we’re asking people to give us their eyeballs and their attention for a half an hour a week, so we want to make sure that what we produce is worth that time.

“The messaging is important and educational, but we want to do that in a fun and engaging way, so it’s really important that we have the craic.

“Our team are great fun too, so you should see some of the bloopers!”

Grow Cook Eat series 3 is now showing on RTÉ 1 on Wednesdays at 7.30pm.

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