With green plots come jobs, food and community building
by: David Plechl, Toby Heym, 1, gets help from his mother, Mayland, as he waters their plot at a New Columbia community garden, largely made possible by a grant from the USDA.

At age 16, Badane Ali is an accomplished gardener. She grows salad greens, collard greens and carrots for herself, her neighbors and for sale. Ali leads a crew of seven teenagers who harvest vegetables on a one-acre plot on Sauvie Island, thanks to a program called Food Works, run by Janus Youth Programs.

'I was 14, and I needed a job,' Ali said. 'I started growing stuff and really liked it.'

Ali was one of about two dozen people on hand last week to watch elected officials dedicate another Janus garden, this time at the New Columbia public housing development in North Portland. Janus received a $250,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to build and manage the New Columbia garden, called Seeds of Harmony.

Gardening may seem a little out of the realm of services provided by Janus, which has been assisting homeless and runaway youths in Oregon and Southwest Washington since 1972.

The organization planted a garden at St. Johns Woods public housing development in North Portland in 2001 as something of an experiment. The goal was to encourage community building and to reduce hunger in one of Portland's poorest neighborhoods, where a majority of residents live below 200 percent of the poverty level.

What came out of the 7,000-square-foot garden was much more than Janus anticipated. On top of the fresh food, the program also spurred after-school homework clubs; year-round mentoring and summer activities for young children; and a job program for teens.

'It got people talking to each other, it got kids involved, and they got their parents involved,' said Angela Martin, children's garden manager at St. Johns Woods. 'It's no longer a community- it's a family.'

The garden became extremely popular with neighborhood teenagers. Janus organized Food Works, which pays teenagers minimum wage to grow and harvest vegetables. The teens who do the work, including Ali, distribute vegetables to neighbors and sell salad greens every Saturday at the farmers market on the Portland State University campus. The goal is to give the kids marketable skills, job experience and self-confidence.

'A lot of their work is hands-on, but hopefully the kids walk away with a better understanding of themselves and the world,' said Sarah Ross, Food Works supervisor.

Currently working their first season on the Sauvie Island farm, the teens sold a record number of salad greens earlier this month. Later this summer, they will deliver fresh vegetables to other low-income neighborhoods by van.

'Our teens have already made more money this year than they did the entire last summer,' said Dennis Morrow, executive director of Janus.

The new, 24,000-square-foot garden in North Portland literally bridges the gap between New Columbia and a nearby public housing development, the Tamaracks. Initially, the goal is the same as the garden at St. Johns Woods: to promote community and reduce hunger. Just like at St. Johns Woods, Janus expects other opportunities to crop up from the garden.

'The people who are moving into the New Columbia and the people who already live in the Tamaracks can come together and be one whole community,' said Richard Stritmater, a garden manager who lives in the Tamaracks development.

While many of the people involved in the project see it as an excellent opportunity to improve their neighborhood, the concept of sustainable urban agriculture could have a much broader application.

'It is my hope that this will be a demonstration in our community of what we can do with other underutilized plots of land,' said Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., who helped secure the USDA grant for Janus.

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