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My Story: Lolo Houbein

Having survived the famine in western Holland as a child, author Lolo Houbein is encouraging people worldwide to start growing their own food and support local farmers. MiNDFOOD reports.

At 11, I lived in a town with no birds. They had all been eaten. The canals were fished out, and the trees on our streets had been cut down for fuel. Unnecessary doors were removed from homes for the same reason. The shops were empty and had shut their doors.

This famine did not happen in some remote African territory. It was in modern, developed western Holland. I will never forget it. It has taught me that even today, in Australia, food security is something that can never be taken for granted.

That knowledge has shaped my life. The famine began in 1944 when German and Allied Forces reached a stalemate at Arnhem and western Holland was cut off from supplies. Food stocks quickly ran out, and thousands of people starved to death. I lived on a daily ration of one slice of bread and a ladle of soup, which we collected from a communal kitchen.

Occasionally, a truck containing sugar or flour would get through, and I was sent to queue. My mother was too weak. I would wait and hope I would get to the front before the precious supply ran out. I was 175cm tall, and my weight plummeted to 30 kilos.


Eventually, the churches banded together and said: “Let’s do something about the children who can be saved.” We were put on trucks and taken to the eastern side of Holland. It was an area the west looked down on, but there were many things about the way they lived that made sense to me. They had vegetable gardens with pigs and chickens, and they collected wild herbs.

I was sent to lodge with a very kind grocer. It seemed amazing to see his shop with full shelves, but his daughter was very strict about feeding me. She gave me only very small meals to start with, and she was quite right. The other kids got so sick from the sudden rush of food that the local school had to turn one room into a hospital for them. 

By the time I returned home in July 1945, I weighed 45 kilos. My mother was pregnant. Her nutrition had been so poor, my little brother was born very weak. I, too, suffered as a result of the starvation. My bones and teeth were crumbling and, by 19, I had arthritis in my spine. A doctor who X-rayed me wondered how I was still even upright. However, I went on to marry and have three children.


My husband, although Dutch, was born in Indonesia and didn’t like Dutch weather, and I was worried that the Cold War might plunge us into chaos again, so we decided to migrate to Australia. 

I loved it. It was such a relief not to have to worry about buying shoes and blankets every winter. We bought a block in a town a half-hour drive from Adelaide, built a house and, remembering my time with the grocer and his daughter, the first thing I did was create 
a food garden. Having experienced 
how a society could implode without food, it seemed to me that growing your own was the most intelligent endeavour on earth. “Others should understand how to do this,” I thought, because I could see that people were being disconnected from what they ate. 

People are going to the supermarket, where produce is a uniform size and colour. The stores claim this is what customers want, which I find nonsense. I have never heard anyone say: “I want my beans all the same size.” Huge amounts of food are wasted as a result, and what is on the shelves is wrapped in plastic and treated with chemicals.

As a result, in 1998, I devised 
a simple eight-week course to teach people how to grow vegetables. Everyone learned how to grow seedlings at home, then brought them all back and swapped them around. They all went off with plenty of plants for a square-metre plot.


The course was a success and repeated the next year. But by 2003, I felt the need to reach a wider audience. One Magic Square (Wakefield Press) was written to encourage people to give food gardening a go. I figured even if they had only a balcony, they could grow herbs and salad greens. Even people without a balcony could grow bean sprouts or alfalfa in 
a jar, or herbs or a lettuce in a pot. 

I hoped once people had managed their square metre, they would be encouraged to grow more. The book developed a life of its own. I got letters from all over Australia, and then, when it was adapted for overseas, from other countries. However, despite this enthusiasm, I still had very real fears about the issue of food security. Although, at 78, I would love to retire, I have now written a second book. Outside the Magic Square (Wakefield Press, $45) was published in January 2012. 

This book explains that we are 
losing farmers and farmland at a frightening rate and could seriously 
ruin our agriculture. People may think we can import food, but we must remember that many exporting countries, such as China, have large populations and unstable weather patterns. What happens if they are suddenly unable to send food to us?

We may think that genetically modified seeds will change the way 
we farm, but if corporations own the world’s seeds, and the fertilisers and herbicides needed to grow them, and we cannot save and collect our own seeds, where does that leave us? 

I want this book to mobilise 
people. I would like to see councils put community gardens in every neighbourhood so everyone can walk to one. I want people to support farmers and horticulturalists, to be aware of the issues surrounding genetically modified plants, and to buy fresh food from markets and local stores. The world has always traded food – there is nothing wrong with that – but to import fresh food is ridiculous.

Thirty years ago, when I met my current partner, Burr Dodd, we started the movement now known as Trees For Life in South Australia. It’s a community-based tree-planting organisation, and it now has more than 10,000 members and has planted more than 30 million trees. It has shown me that if you look around and think things are not going well, you can do something about it.

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