Chad Darby spearheaded a community garden project to combat Tualatin's growing poverty

In June 2013, Chad Darby was shocked by what he learned after reading two news articles, one in The Times and one in The Oregonian. Both referenced the 2010 census and a recent study, which shed light on the growing poverty issue in the United States. This, Darby thought, was bad enough. The sting worsened as the articles detailed that the poverty line in Tualatin was much worse than that of the surrounding metro area cities: Tualatin’s impoverished residents went from about 1 in 16 to 1 in 8 over 10 years, dwarfing the poverty rise of similar cities in the state.Photo Credit: SUBMITTED PHOTO - Several spots around Tualatin have Neighbors Nourishing Communities plots that are maintained by volunteers and nine low-income families. These plots are located at Tualatin Community Church.

Darby couldn’t sit back and watch the problem worsen.

“I wanted to do something about this image that I felt was portrayed about Tualatin,” he said. “I wanted people to think about Tualatin as a place that takes care of its own and a place that’s going to look at a big

issue, like poverty moving to the suburbs, and take it head on in an innovative way.”

Having been involved in food pantries in Tualatin and across the country, Darby was well aware that pantries rarely see fresh produce, meaning the families they serve are likely not eating any. He was also aware that Tualatin was one of the only cities in the metro area not to have a city-supported community garden. Darby wanted to bridge the gap.

“The pantries serve a very important purpose. But the stuff that they receive from donations is a lot of Rice-A-Roni, Hamburger Helper, scratch and dent stuff. It’s not high (in) nutrients, it’s mostly starchy stuff,” he said. “People who don’t have a lot of money are going to go buy a bag of spaghetti noodles as opposed to one tomato to share amongst the family. You can understand when you look at the prices of produce nowadays why that decision gets made.”

Photo Credit: SUBMITTED PHOTO - Neighbors Nourishing Communities volunteers and board members are confronting Tualatin's increasing poverty by growing gardens, from which at least 20 percent of produce is donated.Darby brainstormed, and he brainstormed some more. The result was Neighbors Nourishing Communities, a nonprofit community garden project. By January, he and some board members had set up a model: Provide seeds, plant starts and instruction to home gardeners, who in turn would donate 20 percent of their production to the Tualatin School House Pantry. Not long after, he started getting calls from low-income families wondering if he could help them find a plot so they could garden themselves.

“Who doesn’t want to support somebody that’s willing to put in the effort for themselves, as opposed to asking for a hand out?” Darby said. “We really wanted this to have three legs: We’ve got the residents who are growing and donating, we’ve got businesses, and we’ve got the city.”

Initially, the goal was to have 25 households growing produce to donate. Currently, there are 26, including nine low-income families that the nonprofit helped find plots for. For this, the city donated space at Jurgens Park, Neighbors Nourishing Communities rented plots from Tualatin Community Church and Lynn Bertelsen from Tualatin Park Veterinary Clinic donated some of his green space to the cause. Darby hopes more businesses will follow Bertelsen’s lead, turning unused lawn space into gardens that can help ease hunger and increase quality of life.

Hundreds of pounds of produce have been donated so far this summer, and that number is expected to dramatically increase when heavier items such as tomatoes and zucchini begin ripening in mass quantities. A portion of the donations is coming from City Councilor Frank Bubenik, who serves on the nonprofit group’s board and donates 100 percent of what he grows to the pantry.

“The whole side of my house is tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, squash, zucchini,” he said. “Since I was given the starts and the seeds, it’s just right to turn it all in.”

Another portion of the donated produce comes from the low-income gardeners themselves. Darby said that of the nine families gardening, every single one donates 20 percent of what they produce, even though they were never asked to do so.

“They could use this produce and nine more months of it and still not have enough,” Darby said. “But they want to give back to the pantry just like all the other home gardeners, which is really, really amazing.”

Darby hopes what they’re doing will start to change the way people think about green space and poverty, and eventually begin to shift the tide.

“I kind of had a sense of what poverty must look like in Tualatin, but I didn’t realize how close to the edge a lot of people live,” Darby said. “To me, it was about food to supplement what they already have, but for a lot of these families, it was food to replace what they had been eating so that they could free up some income for prescriptions and bus tickets. They’re just trying to survive. And if you actually give them a chance to do something for themselves, they’ll jump at it.”

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