In conversation with my Grandma: What it is like to live during a time where the next meal is not guaranteed

Julia Brunner and her grandma arm in arm

For me, it is a normal sight when I go and visit my grandma: She is standing in the vestibule of her house, a sledge in her hand – and crack, crack, crack – she beats down the sledge on walnuts to crack their shells. My grandma – her name is Irene, but we always call her grandma as will I in this interview – is 94 years old, still plants and harvests fruit and vegetables and nurses seedlings. She also apprenticed at a garden centre during World War two where they had to switch from growing ornamental plants to growing vegetables to feed themselves and other people. I went to talk to her about how she lived through food shortage during and after World War two and what we can learn from her experiences today and for the future when droughts and flooding threaten good harvests in more and more places around the world.

There were food shortages. I had enough to eat, but we lived humbler then. We had what we were growing on our own.
Julia's grandma in her garden
Grandma Irene
Worked at a garden centre during World War two

Julia (J): Grandma, you grew up in a small village close to Baden-Baden, a city in the southwest of Germany, near the French border. How much was working on a field part of your childhood?

Grandma (G): When I was six, I had to watch over the cows. We children had to chase away horse flies from the cows’ eyes, mouths, and tails. At potato harvest, our parents went to the teacher and told him “We need the children to help pick up the potatoes, they need holidays now”.

J: And what happened then?
G: Then we didn’t have school but had to help on the fields. Everyone in our village worked in their field, however, our uncle, who was living next to us, had no children so we and other family members had to help him as well. Afterwards, the potatoes were washed and fined down. We didn’t have potato peelers at that time.

Grandma Irene cracking nuts with a knife.
After cracking the nuts with her sledge, my grandma uses a knife to get the nuts out of their shells. I Photo: Julia Brunner
Grandma cracking nuts.
My grandma uses the nut pieces for baking cakes or feeding birds in winter. I Photo: Julia Brunner

J: World War two took place during 1939 and 1945 when you were between twelve and 18 years old. What did you eat during that time?

G: Nothing was there. At home with my family, we had milk and bread. My mother baked the bread herself and we had the milk from our own cows. When I was fifteen, I started my apprenticeship at a garden centre. In the morning we had fried potatoes and coffee. At the garden centre, we grew vegetables. We had everything from a to z: spinach, cabbage, salad, carrots and so on that we grew to sell. At the garden centre, we had a shop to sell vegetables on Saturdays. The day before, we had to bring all the vegetables from the field to the shop. People would stay outside as early as 5 am in the morning to wait for the shop to open at 7 am on Saturdays. There were food shortages. I had enough to eat, but we lived humbler then. We had what we were growing on our own.

J: Did you help each other out during that time?

G: I had support from my family at home. I always had to send my laundry to my family because I wasn’t allowed to wash it at my place of work. My mother then put a loaf of bread in my laundry package. I didn’t directly starve, but one day a week I had to go to school and one piece of bread had to sustain me till 4 pm on that day. That was the time I came back to the garden centre, and I could eat again. There was no train back to that place so after school ended I had to walk back. I often had headaches then and saved the end piece of the bread for that day so that I would have something more to eat. But I also had to share my bread with my roommate.

Your grandfather’s mother had it worse. (A/N: my grandfathers’ mother became a widow after her husband died during a bomb attack in Freiburg where he was stationed. Due to them not finding a body to identify she didn’t receive a widower’s pension and had to feed herself, my grandfather and his two younger brothers on her own.) You could see that people wanted to help her, but they only gave her sausage ends and no money when she worked for them so she couldn’t buy anything.

Plastic bag over a seedling.
My grandma uses old plastic bags as greenhouses for seedlings. I Photo: Julia Brunner
Grandma looking after her plants.
Even with 94, my grandma still looks after her garden and collects seeds. I Photo: Julia Brunner

J: What was it like after the war? Did you have more to eat then?

G: After the war, it wasn’t better. More the opposite. We had less to eat because of the occupation troops. We only had what we grew and harvested.


J: After the war, you went home and worked at a garden centre in your hometown and later on in Switzerland for two years. In 1952 you went back to the place where you worked as an apprentice and met your husband, my grandfather, again and married him in 1954. How did you feed your family after your marriage?

G: We had our garden behind the house. With having four kids, every two years another one, I couldn’t go and work somewhere. My earnings came from that garden. Everything we grew there we didn’t have to buy somewhere else. Then we also had a cucumber field and we sold cucumbers. That were my earnings, otherwise, I would have to have gone somewhere and cleaned other people’s houses. I had nearly no money of my own, we only had what your grandfather earned.

Grandma in her garden.
Her garden is still one of the favourite places of my grandma. I Photo: Julia Brunner

J: With changing weather patterns, more droughts and flooding due to climate change, a safe and secure harvest is no longer a guarantee in many places around the world. What can we learn from your experiences of living during a time of shortages, especially food shortages?

G: The people should live humbler. They should grow their own fruit and vegetables. And safe as much as possible. When you’re old, people smile at you when you save as much as I do. But I save gift wrapping paper and smooth it out so I can use it again. Plastic bags, wrapping paper and used paper – I don’t throw it away, I use it again. We made our own apple juice. Jelly and preserved food I still make even now. The people today don’t even crack nuts because that is too much work for them. I still do that and use them for baking or giving the cracked nuts to birds.

Till spring 2022, Eco-Spotlight will cover all things food, and the sustainable solutions gaining roots across the world to produce and consume better. We will be intersecting food with equality, people & planetary justice, the future of consumption, veganism, technology and more. For this, we will talk to experts in the field, farmers, entrepreneurs, artists and more. We will also be dipping into practical ideas like growing your own food and better ways of eating chocolate.

Each week, we will post a new story on the future of food. Let us know your thoughts on all things food and send us a message if there is a specific topic, organisation or person related to the issue that you want us to take a closer look at.

Hello there! I'm Julia, co-founder of Eco-Spotlight and a freelance journalist. With Eco-Spotlight, I want to focus on sharing stories of inspirational people and positive impact, as well as learn more about the environment, and sustainability.

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