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To fend off food insecurity, Ukrainians look to their own backyards


The World Food Program estimates that 1 in 3 households across Ukraine is now food insecure. People have left their homes, lost jobs and income and are dealing with food production and supply chain disruptions all because of the war. NPR's Anya Kamenetz is in southeastern Ukraine, where people are finding one solution right in their own backyards.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: The local government center in the village of Kushuhum, about 12 miles south of the city of Zaporizhzhia, is bustling on this Friday afternoon. Outside, kids are riding tricycles while grown-ups stand in line in the shade. The giveaway on offer? Seeds. There's a full summer vegetable garden in that package - tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, spinach and of course, the borscht bundle - beets, carrots, onions. The seeds are going to people in need, people who have fled here from occupied territories, families with many children and older people like Nadia Fedotova.

NADIA FEDOTOVA: (Non-English language spoken).

KAMENETZ: "Come over right now and help me work in my garden," she says. At 68, the digging is not so good for her back anymore, but she still grows a long list of vegetables.

FEDOTOVA: (Non-English language spoken).

KAMENETZ: Onions, salad, spinach, radish, potatoes, carrots and, of course, cherries for pies. Closer to the front of the line, Lyubov Hilova, a young mother, is standing with her friend. Hilova says ever since the beginning of the war, grocery prices keep going up and down. First sugar was expensive, then flour, then oil, and stuff is always out of stock.

LYUBOV HILOVA: (Non-English language spoken).

KAMENETZ: Not to mention she's out of work now because the child cares are closed. Her friend, Victoria Kishchenko, who has three children herself, chimes in.

VICTORIA KISHCHENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

KAMENETZ: She works at a market, selling everything from fresh fish to strawberries, and she says supplies have been inconsistent.

KISHCHENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

KAMENETZ: This village, as peaceful as it seems right now, stands only a few miles from the frontlines. Sometimes, trucks get held up by soldiers at checkpoints, both Russian and Ukrainian. Sometimes, Kishchenko says, they even ask for bribes - $1,000, say, for a truckload of cucumbers. Next thing you know, cucumbers have doubled in price at the market.

KISHCHENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

KAMENETZ: She says the customers complain when the prices go up.

ANDRIY DERKACH: (Non-English language spoken).

KAMENETZ: Andriy Derkach co-founded the local group which is giving out the seeds today in partnership with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. He explains that historically in Ukraine, almost everyone who lives in villages has a garden, not just to feed themselves but make a little extra money.

DERKACH: (Non-English language spoken).

KAMENETZ: So by giving out seeds, live chickens and animal feed to what they call microfarmers, he's hoping they can help people both with food security and income security. Ukraine's yellow and blue flag stands for golden wheat under blue skies. It's a symbol of a country that's deeply agricultural, not only culturally but economically, too. This country's a top global exporter of wheat, corn and sunflower oil. But the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization told NPR up to half of the wheat that needs to be harvested starting this July is growing in areas that are either being bombarded right now or where the fields are full of dangerous mines. A lot of spring planting also can't go on as planned. The longer the conflict continues, experts are saying, the greater the danger to food security around the world. A few cucumber vines can't solve that. But Nadia Fedotova says gardens have another purpose, too.

FEDOTOVA: (Non-English language spoken).

KAMENETZ: I have a son of the front lines, she says. When my grandchildren and I turn on the television news, we cry, cry, cry. But when you go out to the garden, there are tulips. There are lilacs. You relax. You forget. Anya Kamenetz, NPR News, Kushuhum, Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.