Churchill Community Garden: Enterprise Story

How a garden affects a community

by Jody Canaday

Flowers in the garden

Southwest of the West 18th Avenue and Bailey Hill Road intersection in the Churchill neighborhood, between Kennedy Middle School and Churchill High School, next to soccer fields and community tennis courts sits the Churchill Community Garden.

The garden provides potatoes and tomatoes.  Gardeners raise cabbage, chard, and corn.  They harvest garlic and onions.  You can even see sunflowers that are a head taller than most people.  There’s a patch of soil that’s in the shape of an “A”.  That patch is used by the high school and grows vegetation that is rich in vitamin A. Vine tomatoes that are supported by wooden structures are grown by families who use the garden as a source of food.  The garden provides and serves the neighborhood in a variety of ways.

How the garden became a garden

Before the garden became what it is today, it was “just a big mud pit,” says Jen Anonia, who helped start the garden in 2000 and is the gardens program manager for Food for Lane County.  Mitzi Colbath, who was the president of the Churchill Area Neighbors association at that time, initiated the development of the community garden.  During that year, the garden received a neighborhood-matching grant.  The city paid for the garden’s fence, the irrigation system, the tool shed, benches, and approximately 50 dump truck loads of compost.  The neighborhood matched the grant by providing the green house, power equipment donated by Food for Lane County, donations from other local businesses, and volunteer time.

The garden sits on the southwest side of the Churchill Sports Park and was one of the last plots of land to be developed.  The location was too low and drained so poorly that developers didn’t make a playing field out of the piece of land. Anonia says the garden wasn’t very ideal for gardening either.  She says that typical gardens should have loamy soil, which consists of a mixture of clay, silt, and sand.  Anonia says the soil was originally made up of dense clay municipal fill dumped on top.  She says that community gardeners had to figure out how to make their own soil.   Anonia says the garden has come a long way from where they started back in 2000.

Schools and other volunteers

The garden’s location gives Kennedy Middle School and Churchill High School the opportunity to hold outdoor classes.  Anonia works with three classes from each school during the spring and fall seasons when the schools are in session.  She says that students come to the garden anywhere from one to three times per week and learn while they perform daily tasks.  In addition to credited classes, Anonia says that English, math, science teachers, and even a social studies teacher have utilized the garden as a type of classroom.

The designBridge program at the University of Oregon has also contributed to the Churchill Community Garden.  The student-run organization created a water catchment system that is designed to catch rainwater and use it for the garden.  Anonia says the program wants to use the cisterns as an educational display to promote the idea of personal use in residential gardens.  The system should be operational in the near future.

Molly Bullock is the Churchill Summer Garden Coordinator for Food for Lane County.  She works with volunteers who work in the Churchill Community Garden.  Bullock says that people of all different ages volunteer to work in the garden.  She had a middle school class come out twice a week during the spring.  She says ages can range from 5-years-old to retired professionals.  She also mentions the compost pile being a very popular volunteer site for the younger workers.  She says kids enjoy playing in the multitude of worms that reside in the pile.

Food for Lane County

Produce from the Churchill Community Garden at FFLC distribution center

In addition to the garden’s academic uses,  fruits and vegetables are grown as an alternative to grocery shopping for many families. Food for Lane County rents out 20 of the garden’s 60 family lots.  The organization also grows vegetables to supply various food pantries and meal centers for the low-income population in Eugene.

Marina Hajek has rented a plot for 3 years and grows vegetables that include squash, carrots, peas, leeks, and cucumbers.  Hajek says she rents the garden because she has no opportunity or space at her home.  She says the garden provides the tools and water and that if Food for Lane County has extra, they also provide seeds and plants.  She says she uses the garden to teach her children how to grow food and likes the feeling of self-reliance the garden provides for her.

FFLC also uses some of the garden to stock their food distribution center.  The organization also relies on donations from community members and businesses.  These donations can vary throughout the year depending on supply from contributors, so the garden acts as steady, reliable source of food for people in need throughout the county.  Dawn Marie Woodward, the media relations coordinator for the organization, says that the food is taken to their warehouse to be processed or bundled.  Last year FFLC’s three community gardens, which include Churchill Community Garden, Youth Farm, and Grassroots Garden, produced over 170,000 pounds of produce for the community.  It sent out 128,000 pounds to 96 different agencies that it has partnered with.

One agency that distributes some of the FFLC food in the form of meals is the Eugene Service Station on 450 Highway 99 North, run by St. Vincent de Paul.  Keith Heath has worked at the service station for 5 years as the station’s manager. Heath says the center provides three meals a week for the homeless.  It serves an average of 100-175 people per day at the site.

Huerto de la Familia

One of the other programs associated with the Churchill Community Garden is Huerto de la Familia.  This non-profit organization utilizes 40 of the 60 lots in the garden and provides a place for low-income Spanish families to grow their own produce.  It currently assists 28 families in the area.  Sarah Cantril, the executive director for the organization, says they’ve been working at the garden since 2004, which is the same year the organization became a non-profit.  Cantril says the organization meets twice a month with families to provide education about food preparation, and health and nutrition.  The organization also participates in the Small Farmers Project of Lane County.  This program was started to assist the organization’s families in starting a mirco-business that sells fruits to local businesses and residents.

Jorge Navarro serves on the organization’s board of directors.  He got involved with the non-profit because he says he has a great love of food.  He works on implementing strategy for the program and wants to figure out what the future holds for the organization.  Navarro hopes to encourage ownership among the organization’s current families and is looking for feedback and input from the farmers.

Where the garden stands and hopes to go

Anonia, who along with Bullock, can usually be found working in the garden throughout the week, would like to see more community involvement.  She says a gardener is never satisfied with the maintenance of a garden, so she would like to improve the fertility through composting and drainage for the area.  She would like to see more church and scout groups utilize the community resource.  Anonia would also like to see a community barbecue once a year and additional workshops with organizations like Huerto de la Familia (though she understands that day to day reality and wishes don’t always cooperate).

The garden has transformed since its beginnings in 2000.  It gives Churchill an outdoor area where neighbors can share socialize and share gardening tips.  It provides a sense of community that goes beyond tilled soil and agricultural education.  Anonia says that Churchill “took a space that was not being used and was kind of a mud pit and turned it into something beautiful that the community seems to appreciate.”


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Pests and vandals

The Churchill Community garden has its share of pests.  There are squash bugs and weeds throughout the various rows of fruits and vegetables.  Originally there was a 7-foot fence that surrounded the garden.  Anonia says that the original fence wasn’t tall enough to keep out one of the area’s larger pests, deer.  Two years ago they increased the fence’s length an additional two feet.  This has worked in keeping the deer out of the garden, but not in keeping out vandals.

Approximately a year and a half ago, someone (or a group of someones) broke into the garden and shredded the greenhouse, broke the tool-shed windows, punctured the wheelbarrow tires, and broke the clay cob oven, wash station, and garden cart.  The garden hadn’t experienced any acts of vandalism until recently this month, when someone broke a water spigot, knocked over some sunflowers, and walked on recently planted carrots in the garden.

The mural[1]

Daniel Romero, who worked for Huerto de la Familia as a garden program assistant, instigated the mural on the tool-shed at the Churchill Community garden.  He asked his friend, Kari Johnson, to paint the side of the building.  Romero says the mural incorporates elements of Oregon and Central and South America.  The painting includes images of a set of skull and bones, which represents ancestors, and a woman shaman.  Romero says the mural is a nice way of reflecting community living.  He is leaving his position of garden program assitant and moving to Portland, where he plans to attend Portland State college and look for other opportunities in the area.

More about the people

Jen Anonia has lived in Oregon since 1996.  She worked on a farm in Cottage Grove.  She had worked in environmental education on the east coast.  Before working with FFLC, she worked with autistic children and maintained her own garden.  She started volunteering with FFLC in 1998 and hired full time in 1999.  She started out as the education coordinator at the Youth Farm.

Molly Bullock is in the middle of her first year in working in and with the garden.  She lives outside the city on a farm, and gardening appears to be both natural and a passion.  She says that summer is the best time to be working in the garden.

Keith Heath is from Buffalo, New York.  Before working at St. Vincent de Paul, Heath worked security for 3 years at the FFLC warehouse.  Heath says he started working at the facility because there was a need in the community to help people.  He says that not all the homeless people in the community are drug addicts.

[1] Sources of information regarding the community garden mural are an interview with Daniel Romero and a story in Huerto de la Familia’s newsletter which was written by Annie Nguyen

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