After 17 years of living in Saint John, Lora Koehler reached her breaking point after the 2017 hurricanes. She was seriously ill and turned to fresh food as part of her rehabilitation.
“Part of getting back to my health was getting vegetables, and the vegetables we had after the hurricanes were disgusting,” Koehler recalls. “I used to put them in a juicer just to keep myself alive, and there’s a point where I cry over those carrots because they’re just disgusting. They were leaning over, obviously months old, and I was like, ‘I’m going to die because there’s nothing nutritious in this food.’ »
Koehler’s inclination to turn to food for healing was natural to her. She grew up eating fresh produce from her family’s garden. There are many gardeners on his father’s side of the family and his brothers are organic farmers. After complaining for more than a decade about the price and quality of food on the island, hurricanes Irma and Maria spurred Koehler into action.
“The hurricanes scared me and I saw the food rotting on the shelves after we got our first delivery of food after the storm, and it just stirred something in me,” she said. “I started going to weekly community meetings as soon as I could get out of bed. No one was talking about food security.
Koehler has forged ties with key community members and organizations such as Virgin Islands Good Food Coalition Founder and Executive Director Sommer Sibilly-Brown and Iowa State University, whose students study agriculture in the Virgin Islands through its Education and Resilience Through Horticulture program.
She traveled to Puerto Rico in early 2019 for a Clinton Global Initiative Action Network on Post-Disaster Recovery meeting and participated in Iowa State’s Community Food Systems program.
Koehler founded a Facebook group, St. John VI Good Food Coalition, where residents can talk and swap locally grown plants and foods.
“I just kept hunting, trying to connect with people,” Koehler said.
Although Koehler has always rented during her more than two decades of living in St. John, she tries to grow no matter where she lives. It is grown in pots and containers on patios and porch railings. In her current home in Coral Bay, she has transformed an old canoe into an asparagus garden.
“For years people told me you couldn’t grow asparagus here, but I looked at a report from the 1950s that said asparagus was a crop in St. Thomas, and I thought to myself :“Game on. I can do it,” she said. “I’m all about easier gardening, not harder.”
She has harvested soursops, mangoes and currants from the trees on her property and strives to network with friends and neighbors to exchange the literal fruits of her labor.
“My dream is for everyone to live on a farm, where you know your neighbors and help them plant their fruit trees,” Koehler said.
She’s even trying to tackle plums, which need a cold snap to fruit, by germinating the seeds in her refrigerator for four months and she’ll water the plants with ice cubes at the suggestion of her farmer brothers.
Some St. John residents might be hesitant to garden because they don’t want to divert precious water from the cistern to their plants. Koehler solves this problem with several rain barrels on his property.
“When droughts come, some plants just don’t get as much water and I’m learning what can tolerate that,” she said. “I learned a few tricks, like putting plants in areas where they can water each other, or putting them in a big tub to have water underneath, so they all get a little water. little.”
Hurricanes inspired Koehler’s first deep dive into community food security, and a second crisis took his efforts even further: the global pandemic.
“It was June 2020 and the world was going crazy,” she said. “I decided to start hosting swaps. I started calling all my friends and we had a party. We swapped plants and people brought their jams, hot sauces, soaps and volcanic mud from the Dominique. It was just us neighbors getting together. I’m such a food advocate and I don’t understand why we don’t have farmers markets or community gardens.”
Koehler’s efforts are undertaken with the ultimate goal of establishing better food security in the Virgin Islands. Plant exchanges currently take place quarterly on the first Sunday of each month at Oasis in Coral Bay, but Koehler said she would like to increase the frequency of the event if more people volunteer to help with the event. organization.
“I love this island and I want to see us reunite,” she said. “We have to unite. I wish it was a traditional farmers and artists market where the community comes together, but I can’t do it alone.
To get involved, contact Koehler at 340-344-4341 or [email protected], and join the St. John VI Good Food Coalition group on Facebook.