Enterprise Story: Urban Farming Grows Community

Nestled away behind St Thomas Episcopal Church is perhaps the most productive two and a half acres in Eugene. Located just off Coburg road and right across the street from Safeway in the middle of residential and light commercial areas sits an urban farm that produced 59,000 pounds of food last year.

The Grassroots Garden smells like a mixture of pine trees, manure, and freshly cut wood. The earthy smell engulfs you as you walk in to the garden and see large greenhouses, tool sheds, and a canopy covered out door kitchen covering one half of the urban farm while neat rows of plants and a massive mound of decaying leaves occupy the remaining space. Wood-chip covered pathways dissect the garden allowing access to the greenhouses without having to walk through the muddy soil used to grow the crops.

The Grassroots Garden is the largest of the three urban farms run by FOOD for Lane County which produce fresh foods and vegetables for food banks in the county. Oregon is considered one of the hungriest states in the U.S. ranking as high as 2nd in terms of states with the highest hunger and food insecurity rates.

Lane county is one of the hardest hit counties in Oregon explains Lyndsie Leech, one of the current head coordinators at the Grassroots Garden:

“One in every three people in Lane County is eligible for emergency food aid, that’s not just a lot of people but that’s probably someone you know,” said Leech. She explains that the gardens are a crucial source of food for the hungry people in and around Eugene by providing food to food banks, emergency food boxes, and free kitchens such as The Dining Room.

Food from the gardens reaches more people than just those in dire need adds Leech:

“The food also goes to places such as women’s shelters and is used for children’s lunch programs in the parks during the summer.” Leech also mentions that the gardens provide a fresh alternative to the canned food that is predominantly donated to FOOD for Lane County.

Leech in one of the greenhouses after lunch.

Like all of the urban farms run by FOOD for Lane County, Grassroots Garden is run almost entirely by volunteers such as Leech. The Grassroots Garden has seen about 25,000 people help out over its fifteen years of operation. These volunteers come from a variety of backgrounds and for a variety of reasons. For Faith Brock, who has volunteered at the Grassroots Garden for about two years, it was the personal satisfaction that she gets from giving to the community. Others meanwhile, are college and high school students that help out at the gardens as part of their classes:

“I came here because of my global health and sustainability class at LCC but I have been back three times,” said Fred Schminke, 18, a student at Lane Community College. The gardens average about twenty volunteers a day with about ten of them being regulars.

Not all of the people working at the garden are volunteers. Fran Day is serving community service after getting her medical license revoked for malpractice, charges Day claims she is not guilty of. She has been coming to the garden for the past five months and spends most of the time washing dishes.

“It’s a lovely place to contribute,” says Day. “Coming here and looking at all the vegetables makes things just melt away.”

Day washing dishes after lunch

Garden workers come from numerous programs as well. Many people with physical and psychological disabilities contribute to the garden like the group Mobility International, which brings people with disabilities from a variety of countries (mostly in eastern Europe) to volunteer at the garden for one day in the summer.

“Last year half of the people were blind and one person had no arms yet he still managed to help plant rows of crops.” said Althea Seaver, one of the revolving coordinators at the garden.

Mobility International are not the only people with disabilities who work at the garden. Teachers at local schools such as nearby Sheldon high school will take students with disabilities to the garden to help out. This puts them in a learning environment outside a classroom which may be better suited to them. Other clubs and students from the local schools also come on a regular bases as well. Last year a group of students who came from Harrisburg to help paired students with special needs and disabilities with students who were academically gifted.

Stepping Stones is another program that provides the gardens with help and one that is a favorite of long-time garden leader Merry Bradley. Stepping Stones is a program which rehabilitates repeat youth offenders with programs like the Grassroots Garden. The garden counts as community service while leaders like Bradley teach the youths about things such as nutrition. The program has been very successful and the youths have taken to Bradley so much that they throw her a ‘thank you’ party at the program’s completion.

Some people chose to volunteer even after their assigned community service time is over. Such is the case of Neo Thein, 14, who has returned to the garden to volunteer with harvesting, planting, and fertilizing. His sister’s presence at the garden is much less optional:

“My parents made me,” said Ari Thein, 12, who is ‘volunteering’ for her second time and helps with the cooking of the lunch that is made of food that is grown on-site and served to volunteers.

When parental influence is not a factor, one of the main reasons people volunteer is that it promotes some of the values held by the people who work at the garden:

“We have to get used to living on the land and living more locally,” says Schminke.

“It’s a grassroots effort for producing the basics,” echoes Day.

Besides providing food for Eugene and the surrounding area, the Grassroots Garden is also a positive influence on the community. Leech explains that they try and turn the volunteer or community service hours into teaching opportunities by explaining the process of agriculture:

“We don’t just say ‘dig this hole’, we explain that you’re digging this hole to overturn soil to make it better for plants to grow in,” said Leech.

“Community is what propels the gardens,” says Brock. She also adds that it is a chance for volunteers to learn basic gardening skills, learn how to prepare organic vegetables, and develop teamwork skills. Besides learning through volunteering, the Grassroots Garden also offers pruning and composting classes to help teach the community how to grow better gardens. The Grassroots Garden also hosts events that get the community involved such as their upcoming plant sale. The garden sells plant starts and fruit trees to the local community so they can grow them in their own gardens.

Community members who are willing to donate money in addition to or instead of time are also very important to the garden. Most of the equipment used on the urban farm was purchased using money donated to the Grassroots Garden from people in the community.

It has taken the hard work of many volunteers and workers to grow the Grassroots Garden from a small garden that produced 4,000 pounds of food to an urban farm that now grows close to 60,000 pounds in just fifteen years. The garden is a valuable resource to both the local community, the volunteers, and people the food eventually reaches.

The Grassroots Garden is located on Coburg road across from Safeway and holds open volunteer hours Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. The garden will also be hosting a plant sale on March 31st with all the proceeds going to the gardens and FOOD for Lane County.

Sidebar 1:

One of the local places that uses food grown by the Grassroots Garden is The Dining Room. The Dining Room provides free meals to anyone in need in a restaurant type setting. The restaurant is operated by FOOD for Lane County with the goal of trying to serve free meals to people in need in a setting that has a much more positive atmosphere than traditional soup kitchen type establishments. Rather than a line, patrons at The Dining Room are served a nutritional four-course meal in a dignified fashion. Dignity is the word used most often when referring to The Dining Room because of the way it treats its clientele.

The Dining Room is open four nights of week and is typically full of patrons, most of them homeless who have not eaten at a restaurant in quite some time. The restaurant is mainly run by trained volunteers who give their time to prepare and serve food to hungry patrons in need. Humility and respectfulness are the main character traits in any volunteer at The Dining Room as the main goal of the restaurant is not only to serve meals but also to serve “serves large portions of dignity and great atmosphere” according to FOOD for Lane County.

The restaurant has come under some scrutiny based on it’s location in a commercial district downtown but, for the time being, The Dining Room will continue to open its doors to feed the homeless of Eugene in a dignified fashion. The Dining Room is located at 270 W. 8th Avenue in Eugene between Lincoln and Charnelton and operates Monday through Thursday from 3:30-6:30.

Sidebar 2:

One of the most famous example of the impact urban farming can have on a community is the case of the South Central Farmers in Los Angeles. An unused 14 acres in the industrial Central-Alameda area of Los Angeles soon became a space that around 350 local families used to grow food and flowers. The group of mostly Mexican-American gardeners soon became to be known as the South Central Farmers and the South Central Farm soon became one of the largest urban farms in the U.S. with an estimated 100-150 species of plants being grown over 14 acres.

Controversy erupted in 2001 when Ralph Horowitz, a partner in the company that previously owned the land, sued the city for breach of contract. After years of legal negotiations the city settled with Horowitz and sold the land back to him for about $5 million. Horowitz set the the date the farm was to be destroyed for February 2004 but it took nearly two years for the site to be fully evicted as members of the L.A. community  banded together with the South Central Farmers in an attempt to save the farm. For the South Central Farmers and the local community, the farm represented a haven from the dangers of a lower-class, inner-city neighborhood.

Much tension surrounded the land dispute as riots, sit-ins, and large protests would all be involved before the farms ultimate destruction in 2006. Though the farm is gone, the South Central Farmers remain as an activist group and the South Central Farm still stands as an example of what urban farming can mean to a community.

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