Oregon Food Bank volunteers learn about organic gardening at Five Oaks school plot

by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - PGE volunteer Lori Kondrath waters plants in the learning garden at Five Oaks Middle School.School’s been out of session at Five Oaks Middle School since early June, but learning continues throughout the summer in the lush, flourishing vegetable garden outside its walls.

Oregon Food Bank West’s Learning Garden at 1600 N.W. 173rd Ave., provides volunteers an opportunity to learn the finer points of organic growing while creating a steady supply of fresh vegetables for the food bank to distribute to those in need.

“A lot of our volunteers say, ‘I have an interest in gardening, but I don’t know where to start,’” said Sarah Schirmer, Oregon Food Banks’ corporate gifts developer. “Here, they can work alongside people who have years of experience. Some of them don’t have (gardening) space at home, but still want to help the hungry.”

A recent $20,000 grant from the Portland General Electric Foundation goes to help support the garden and the food bank’s Seed to Supper and Dig In! programs. A comprehensive, five-week beginning gardening course, Seed to Supper is designed to help educate families on raising and preserving their own food on a limited budget. Dig In! offers guidance for those who want to start their own neighborhood garden programs to help contribute to the food bank and other area hunger-relief agencies.

While PGE and its employees are longtime supporters of the food bank through capital donations and volunteers, the company’s foundation recently shifted its focus when it comes to combatting hunger.

“This year, we’re going deeper,” said Rachel DeRosia, PGE foundation spokeswoman. “We want to support more prevention-oriented programs. This is the first time we’ve offered a grant for the Learning Gardens, which gets out in front of the cause by teaching people how to grow their own food.”by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - PGE's Sarah Schirmer oversees several projects, including the collaboration with Five Oaks Middle School's learning garden.

The Beaverton garden — one of two the food bank operates, including a Portland location at 7900 N.E. 33rd Drive — is a joint venture between the food bank and the Rachel Carson School of Environmental Science, a program at Five Oaks for ecologically minded students.

The Westside garden produces 40 varieties of organically grown, pesticide-free vegetables, including tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, squash, beets, cilantro and tomatilllas. Food Bank West relocated the garden in 2010 from a quarter-acre plot in Hillsboro after its headquarters moved from leased to purchased space just up the street on 173rd Avenue.

“This one is a tad bigger,” Schirmer said of the relocated garden. “The old Food Bank West had a warehouse and garden on the same plot. We wanted to be more in the center of Washington County and knew we needed to have a garden.”

The garden has attracted 253 individual volunteers for the Dig In! program since July 2012. Seed to Supper held two, five-week classes that trained 55 participants. by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - A honey bee lands on a marigold, which was specifically planted to bring more pollinators into the learning garden.

This year’s bounty exceeded the prior year, with both learning gardens generating a total of 17,092 pounds of food during fiscal year 2012-13.

Led by a program coordinator and a volunteer coordinator, with assistance from the Rachel Carson students at Five Oaks, the garden is planted in March and April, and harvested from mid-summer into October.

“We could not do this without volunteers,” Schirmer said. “There’s no way two people could manage a garden this size.”

Lori Kondrath, who works in PGE’s street lighting division, says most of her volunteering had been at the Food Bank West center near her residence. Now she’s ready to work in the garden.

“From now on, I will,” she said while helping to water the garden on Aug. 15. “I live in a town home with a postage-stamp yard. I want to get my hands dirty.”

Raleigh Hills resident Angela Gaines, a federal energy regulatory compliance specialist for PGE, said she was encouraged by the company’s volunteer-oriented culture to get involved with Food Bank West.

“PGE has a good representation of volunteers in the area,” she said. “I wanted something that wasn’t going to be completely strange to me. I went to the food bank and thought, ‘Oh, this is not too difficult.’”

The gardening aspect is even better, she noted.

“I like the idea of this, coming out and learning myself.”

To volunteer for Oregon Food Bank or for more information on Learning Garden opportunities, visit TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - PGE employee and volunteer Angela Gaines picks green beans at Oregon Food Bank West's learning garden.

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