Spanish-speaking volunteers to offer classes in gardening, healthy food

NEWS-TIMES FILE PHOTO - Without 4-H programs, the Washington County Fair would just be another carnival, according to Pat Willis of the Oregon State University Extension Service.With the Washington County Fair one week away, thoughts of curly fries, fresh pies, grunting pigs, freshly groomed livestock and perfectly matched carrots and beans run rampant.

This year, as Oregon State University Extension Service staff and volunteers prepare for the annual event, they’re also thinking more about how to reach the Latino community and the county’s low-income residents, who they believe could benefit from their projects.

The Extension Service runs demonstration gardens and 4-H programs at county fairs throughout the state, ranging from livestock shows and auctions to garden produce, arts, food preservation and floral arrangements.

Without the 4-H programs, the fair “would just be a carnival,” said OSU Extension’s Pat Willis.

This year, OSU Extension has partnered with Washington County’s Women, Infants & Children (WIC), which provides services for low-income families, including classes, caregiving support, referrals to health services and food vouchers. Extension staff members have also been assisting with Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center’s learning garden, working closely with Alejandro Tecum of the Forest Grove nonprofit Adelante Mujeres and visiting schools — especially poorer ones.

About 16 percent of Washington County’s population is Hispanic and almost 11 percent of county residents live below the poverty level.

“How can we engage this population?” asked Pukhraj Deol, an OSU urban and community horticulturist.

OSU staff members have been reaching out to children and families in creative ways, coming up with fun educational programs for the fair and recruiting more kids to participate in 4-H programs.

Willis has traveled through Washington and Multnomah counties, encouraging youth to enter a creation — anything from rope to a robot — in the “maker fair” and show it off to fair visitors.

During school visits, Willis promotes Tech Wizards, a small-group mentoring program designed to get at-risk children interested in science and technology.

“I want all kids to have equal access,” Willis said, and “4-H programs give kids the boost they need in developmental years.”

Willis also works to get kids involved in the more traditional 4-H animal programs in a county with an increasingly urban population.

Other features designed to spark kids’ interest in healthy food have become wildly popular. The award-winning Growing Grove, organized by Fair Complex Manager Leah Perkins-Hagele, offers hands-on activities to help kids make the connection between agriculture and the food on their table. It includes fitness activities and Mother Goose’s Farm Yard Fun. Children can learn to milk a cow, make butter and grind wheat into flour. OSU’s Master Gardeners also run a popular scavenger hunt whose grand finale involves pulling up a carrot from the demonstration gardens.

At the adult level, classes on container gardening and how to start seeds are new this year. Tecum and WIC staff will serve as interpreters and will also offer information about their programs. Participants will also be given seeds and starts to help jumpstart their gardening efforts.

“It’s common for people to think it’s harder than it is to garden,” said Tara Olson of WIC. “It’s common for them to think it’s expensive and that you need a lot of space.”

That’s why classes will focus on growing in even the smallest of spaces, like patio pots. These health-conscious fair programs can be a big help to families with picky kids, stretching their food budgets and encouraging them to eat local, healthy food.

“This is the first time we’ve done something like this at the fair,” said Olson. “I hope we have a good turnout and improve access to food.”

But some low-income and Hispanic folks still face obstacles.

“For many who work in the farming, landscaping or nursery industries, gardening sounds like work,” Deol said.

Ivy Wagner, who works at Virginia Garcia, sees smaller difficulties come into play but still add up. Oregon’s season differs from other parts of the country and Central and South America, for example, so immigrants may not know how to grow produce in Oregon. And in Mexico, a community garden means everyone works the same space and shares the rewards — but here, community gardeners have to pay for and maintain their own space alone.

In addition, Latino and low-income people may be interested in OSU’s Master Gardener program but may not speak English or have the money or flexible schedule to attend, Deol said.

That’s why the Extension is trying to recruit more Spanish-speaking and bilingual volunteers, including Tecum, a Forest Grove resident who runs Adelante Mujeres’ sustainable-agriculture program, which has skyrocketed in popularity.

Tecum encourages newcomers to plant food in just one small part of their lawn. That’s how he gets people hooked. “Most people end up adding more and more space for their garden.”

Fun at the fair

n The fair runs Thursday, July 24 to Sunday, July 27, and is open 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.

n Washington County Fair Complex, 873 N.E. 34th Ave. in Hillsboro.

n Admission is free.

n Parking is $5 per car and $10 for buses and over-sized vehicles.

n New this year: There will be a Mexican Rodeo Sunday evening. All motorsports events will be held Friday night. That includes the demolition derby, motocross, monster trucks and mud drags.

Uncorked: the Northwest Wine Chateau will offer regional wines near The Portland Spirit Big Fair Fun Music Stage.

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