Are Highway Rest Stops Pollinators’ Last Hope?

These days it seems that the harder it is to grow plants in a location, the more people want to do it. Urban agriculture and rooftop gardens are thriving in cities worldwide, requiring some to valiantly haul tons of dirt to the top of many-storied buildings. Astronauts farm in space (not the ick-factor kind that Matt Damon does in The Martian). In New York City, the Lowline, an under-development underground recreation park, is working on growing pineapples beneath the concrete on the Lower East Side.

These are all amazing projects, with beauty and research that will benefit pollinators such as bees and Monarch butterflies that we need to grow much of our food. But there is lower-hanging fruit also, wide-open underused spaces available to grow beautiful, pollinator-friendly plants and educate thousands of people daily about improving the food system: highway rest stops and parking lots.

The Virginia Department of Transportation recently launched its Pollinator Habitat Program, planting its first rest-stop garden along Interstate 95. In September, volunteers placed 8,000 plants that attract monarch butterflies and other pollinators in a 15,000 square-foot meadow adjacent to the Dale City Rest Area. Two education stations close to the rest-area building teach visitors about food and pollinator issues. Additional sites were planted at park-and-ride lots.

Before summer, an additional two acres will be seeded, according to Jenny O’Quinn, spokesperson for the Department of Transportation. Native plants—milkweed and aster, for example—are being used, says Quinn, which will limit pest invasion and cut down on mowing costs. The careful selection is not surprising: The program is a partnership that includes the Loudon Wildlife Conservancy.

Rest-stop patrons are a captive audience. According to some studies, each person spends five to 15 minutes in each location, often, from my experience, looking for distractions while her traveling companion waits for coffee. “People are welcome to walk through the meadow habitat at Dale City. It is newly planted, but it is expected this and the other new habitats will become naturalized over the course of a few years and will no longer require human intervention for sustainability,” says Quinn.

Plus individuals who stop along the well-traveled I-95 corridor turn over daily, providing opportunities to educate people from diverse income levels, geographic locations, and levels of interest in the environment and food system.

There is a certain irony to highway rest stops bolstering the food system. Some food activists trace the beginnings of “big agriculture” to the creation of the interstate road system after World War II. When transportation became easier, faster, and less expensive, food was shipped all over the country from fertile and always-sunny California. Consumers could eat anything they wanted any time of year, rather than eat locally and seasonally, and strawberries in December were too much of a luxury to pass up.

More recently concerns have been raised about the effect of food shipping’s effect on the environment, the use of pesticides’ affect on pollinators, and the importance of local food systems to food security. (See our video on strawberry shipping below.)

The planet requires such creative thinking to feed a projected nine billion people by 2050, especially with pollinators dwindling in numbers so alarmingly, that the White House formed a task force to study the problem. Many of our crops depend on pollinators to grow so if pollinators disappear, much of our food disappears with them, (See White House Puts Honey Where Its Mouth Is.)

Today, using the highway system to increase food awareness and perhaps help the food system’s recovery seems like a good first step. As some researchers look at outer space, or roofs, or underground for the much-needed secrets to growing in difficult conditions, it’s good to remember some underused spots on the earth’s surface too.

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