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  • 26 Dec 2014

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Growing crops, healthier kids

Nonprofit nurtures East Portlanders, nutritious eating


by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Horacio Anderson, 6, gets tips on how to chop apples while helping prepare an apple cinnamon dish at Zenger Farms cooking class at West Powellhurst Elementary School in Southeast Portland. Kale chips, anyone?

This spring, at the little red farmhouse on Portland’s Southeast Foster Boulevard and 117th Avenue, Zenger Farm is offering free cooking workshops for low-income families in the area, with a focus on preparing healthy locally grown foods.

“If there's been one success, it's getting kids to like kale," says Prairie Hale, community involvement coordinator for the nonprofit, which runs a 6-acre organic farm next to a 10-acre wetland.

"We've done soups, salads, snacks for kids,” Hale says. "We make kale chips in the oven.”

The farmhouse almost appears out of nowhere on Foster, and with few pedestrians in the area, it's easy to speed on by and miss it. But at its Wednesday night cooking classes, Zenger Farm has become a popular hub for dozens of East Portland residents. Now in its second year, the workshop series is held both at the farm's community kitchen and in surrounding neighborhoods. 

Recent locations included Lent School; West Powellhurst and Gilbert Park elementaries (both in the David Douglas School District); and Bellrose Station Apartments, an affordable housing complex at Southeast 92nd Avenue and Flavel Street.

Many families drive to the WinCo Foods store on Northeast 122nd Avenue for the cheapest deal on boxed foods, Hale says. "We're trying to raise awareness around the food system."

There's often long waiting lists for each of the workshops, and Hales hopes to secure funding to expand the program. She's soliciting grants and support from regional foundations and local businesses. 

Currently, the nonprofit Friends of Zenger Farm supports the workshops, as well as cooking demos, tastings at neighborhood fairs and other events. 

That's in addition to the farm's other educational efforts: summer camps and field trips for visitors of all ages. In the springtime, children's groups are almost a daily presence. David Douglas fifth-graders come to the farm a few times each year to enhance their science curriculum. 

And anyone from the public — preschoolers, grade-schoolers and grown-ups alike — can schedule a 90-minute tour to check out the farm, including the flock of 30 laying hens, five honeybee hives, the compost bins, orchard, bioswales, children's gardens and turkeys from June through November. 

From farm to kitchen

The no-frills Zenger Farm kitchen can accommodate up to 25 people, although the average size class is 15. Interactive cooking workshops focus on cooking skills such as knife techniques and tasting as you go, as well as recipe sharing, budgeting, menu planning, shopping strategies, gardening and where to find food resources in the neighborhood. 

Translators assist as needed, and farm volunteers are on hand to help out. 

Often it's a mother, daughter and grandmother cooking together, since the project is designed to encourage family togetherness and celebrate cultural traditions. The other goal is to teach residents to use seasonal and affordable ingredients to prepare their own family meals. 

Like many local farms, Zenger offers a Community Supported Agriculture program, whereby families sign up to regularly buy produce grown at the site. Forty families signed up for it last year, half of them through the use of food stamps. 

That brings the cost of farm-fresh produce boxes from June through October down from $600 to just $25, for those who qualify for the state's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. 

Community building

Zenger Farm has deep roots in the community. Off site, it operates the Lents International Farmers Market at Southeast Foster and 92nd Avenue. Since 2007, the market has been doing its part to put fresh produce in the hands of those who typically might not seek it out. 

In 2007, the market became the first in the metro area to offer a SNAP match — an incentive program that last year offered shoppers a $10 market token for the first $10 spent at the market. 

In recent years other markets began to offer SNAP matches, including the Buckman, King and Northwest farmers markets, which offer a $7 match. 

There are now about a dozen match programs in the Portland area, most of which offer a $5 match, says Sarah Broderick, Lents market manager. 

Despite its popularity — contributing $11,000 in matched funds last year — the Lents market may have to reduce the $10 match to $7 this year, due to a lack of funds, Broderick says. 

Last year when funds ran low, the market started a weekly fundraiser: local breweries donated a keg each week for a market beer garden, and sales from those drinks went toward the SNAP match. 

Broderick worked with the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization, inviting in budding restaurateurs as hot-food vendors from the Russian, Mexican, Hmong, Thai, Vietnamese, East African and other communities. 

Thanks to expanded hours (11 a.m. to 4 p.m.), more international music and bringing in more farmers (many of them also SNAP participants), the visitor count doubled last year to about 920 customers on Sundays, compared to 460 in 2011. 

That still isn't in the ballpark of markets around town like Hollywood, which sees 4,200 visitors per Sunday. 

But Broderick says it's a start. This season the market will debut a Food Scout program, which gives kids ages 5 through 12 a $2 token to use at the market, to buy their own produce. Modeled after a similar program in Oregon City, she hopes it'll empower kids to start healthy shopping and eating habits at a young age.

"Kids are so much more willing to try a vegetable if they have the experience of learning about it, touching it, talking to the farmer," she says. 

Adults aren't that different. 

Broderick feels the Lents market and other efforts by Zenger Farm are helping to transform the food culture in East Portland. 

At farmers markets across the city, a large segment of shoppers are dedicated to the importance of supporting local food as well as the nutritional and environmental benefits of buying farm-fresh foods. But relatively high prices can inhibit would-be shoppers in all areas of town.

"I think most people everywhere, despite their income level, think 'Oh my gosh, $4 for a tomato?' It is a hard sell," Broderick says. 

"It's different here" in Lents, she says. "We don’t have $4 tomatoes. A lot of our farmers price at what will sell and what works for them. Even our tamale vendors at the other markets charge 50 cents more per tamale. At our market they realize it won't work."