Growing Gardens marks a milestone keeping childhood hunger at bay

This fall, Growing Gardens’ staff, volunteers and families wrapped up our 17th year of building home and school gardens, and installed our 1,000th organic food garden in Portland. Achieving this milestone gave us a good reason to celebrate and reflect on the importance of helping people learn how to grow their own food.

A thousand gardens might seem like a lot, but they’re not nearly enough to address the hunger problems in our community. One in five Oregonians (20 percent), most of whom already are working, rely on food stamps (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) to put food on the table.On Nov. 1, SNAP benefits were reduced by up to 13.6 percent. Now Congress is talking about even deeper food stamp cuts.

It just got a lot harder for thousands of families in our community to stretch a food budget to the end of each month. Food banks, churches and local pantries, already struggling to keep up with the need for food, just can’t help all the kids and families who are working hard just to get enough to eat.

Since 1996 Growing Gardens has dug deeply at the roots of hunger in our community by promoting home-scale organic gardening. With the help of thousands of dirt-up-to-their-elbows volunteers through the years, we’ve built garden beds in back, front and side yards of homes, as well as around apartment buildings and on school grounds. We’ve provided seeds and plants, mentors and workshops that teach growing, preserving and cooking fresh food. Why do we do this work? And what have we learned?

We believe that access to healthy and culturally appropriate food is an inherent right. People and communities are empowered when they have the knowledge and skills to produce their own food. Our quality of life is improved when we respect and honor our environment. And growing our own food promotes self-reliance and independence as well as improving our own health.

We’ve learned that by growing food in our yards, most people save money. Most home gardeners share food with their neighbors and increase consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables. And home gardeners reduce their reliance on emergency food boxes. Further, schoolyard gardens promote lifelong good eating habits as well as encourage kids to choose veggies. And kids who eat healthy foods are less likely to become obese.

In 2010, Multnomah County adopted an ambitious 15-year Food Action Plan “to truly achieve a local, healthy, equitable and regionally prosperous food system... [and] cultivate a culture that values and is committed to sustainable food system outcomes.”

It noted that Oregon was then ranked second in hunger by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Further, only a small portion of the food we consume was grown locally. Some of the goals of the action plan included increasing urban food production, increasing equitable access to healthy, affordable, safe and culturally appropriate food in underserved neighborhoods, and promoting individual and community health by encouraging healthy food choices.

In 2013, the Oregon Food Bank reported that in Oregon, 270,000 people each month eat meals from emergency food boxes — and of those, 92,000 are children. It further noted that hunger is an income issue. And with incomes flat or declining for most Oregonians, it might seem like hunger and food insecurity would be insurmountable problems.

But one of the solutions might be right in front of us, in our own backyards. Americans have a long history of growing our own food, from the Victory Gardens of the 1940s to the Kitchen Garden Michelle Obama planted in 2009 on the White House lawn. And for Growing Gardens in Portland, a thousand gardens later, that’s just what we have been helping people do.

The next time you look at a parking strip or a grassy yard, think about how much fresh food could be grown right there. Think about how much fun your kids will have planting a garden and how much they will learn. And think about how good you’ll feel by becoming more self-reliant.

Then, instead of just thinking about it, help feed your own family and fight hunger by growing your own food.

David Greenberg is executive director of Growing Gardens, a Northeast Portland organization that seeks to meet the local demand for home and school gardens, and create garden-based education programs.

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