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Kids in Rainier Beach dig into city farming

A Ground Up Organics youth prepares a meal. Credit: Seattle Tilth

In a neighborhood with one of the most diverse zip codes in the nation, urban farming is finding eager converts. Rainier Beach Urban Farm and Wetlands in southeast Seattle has all it takes to draw in the community — financial support from the city, seasoned educators experienced with working with low income and people of color communities and even a wetland waiting to be restored.

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There’s probably no rain and no wind strong enough to keep this community from a “work party” at one of the city’s newest urban farms, unique for its on-site community kitchen, education programs and wetland restoration project. “We like to say, 'community led, community bred; people who live in the Rainier Beach neighborhood or south Seattle,'” says Harry Hofffman with Friends of Rainier Beach Urban Farm and Wetlands. The community group lobbied the city when Seattle Parks shuttered a plant nursery and invited the public for ideas on what to do with the site. “We felt early on the community needed a focal point, something to lift up everyone’s spirits and to give us something that we can do that’s ours, that we can talk about, that changes the image of the community.”

After years of meetings the group received the green light to bring the urban agriculture movement to the Rainier Valley, storied as having one of the most diverse zip codes in the nation. Today high school students, immigrants from Ethiopia and Central America, and organic and restoration advocates are improving their food supply, experimenting with sustainable growing methods and restoring a century-old wetland. “We’re taking some principles and ideas that have been developed kind of at a privileged level and bringing them down to the people’s level and the people have embraced it totally and it’s their idea now.”

Rainier Beach High School student, Khadijo, signed on when a representative from Seattle Tilth, the leading boots-on-the ground project partner, came to her nutrition class to recruit students for a work-study project in growing and cooking organic food and restoring the wetland. “And I asked myself what’s in our food, like what do we eat? Like what’s in it? I want to know what’s the difference between organic and non-organic.” This morning it’s Khadijo’s turn to remove invasive blackberries and reed canary grass from the heart of the wetlands, a long wide ditch that drains into Lake Washington, while others learn the art of organic cooking in the community kitchen. 

For Abner, a student from South Lake High School, the motivation is about gaining job experience — all students are paid through a city job training program called “STEP” or Student Teen Employment Program. “My Dad used to do this, so I knew this was going to help me in the future. It will be good for my resume in the future so I can get a job.”

The real goal, says Nate Moxley, a youth educator with Ground Up Organics, a people of color-led partner in the project, is to reorient people to the food they eat. “We incorporate food justice, talk about access to healthy foods for low-income communities and communities of color.” The cooking piece is fundamental. At lunch everyone will get to sample organic stew cooked by their peers in the community kitchen. “You can teach a young person to grow food, but until they learn what to do with that food and until they begin to incorporate that into their lifestyles, I don’t think the change comes full circle.”

Moxley points out rows of winter kale, chard and collard greens growing in a field across from the wetland. He says sometimes he’ll grab a piece of kale and pop it in his mouth. “And they look at me like, you mean you can just eat it like that? Yeah, it’s the best way to do it.”

In the community kitchen — still a work-in-progress — Tizita Aseffa, another Ground Up Organics educator, coaches students to describe how they made the organic chicken stew. Instead of steaming the rice in water, “We added onions and salt and chicken broth,” says a student, “and rosemary and water and cumin.” Potatoes, collards and cabbage came from the farm’s “Good Food Bag”. The chicken was purchased. Ginger and garlic were added, plus another seasoning the cooks always have on hand. “Berbere. That’s my secret ingredient. It adds heat without being too hot, right,” says Aseffa. Used often in Ethiopian and Eritrean cooking, berbere is a mix of flavors, “fenugreek and mustard seeds and different kinds of chilies.”

The restoration crew is told it’s lunch time. Many can’t stop working. They’re checking out an organic technique to get rid of the reed canary grass, which is sucking all the water from the wetland. Herbicides are often used with resistant invasive plants, but not here. Sheet mulching is the method of choice.

“To do it we use three layers of cardboard, a layer of burlap and six inches of wood chips,” says community volunteer, David Perasso. “There’s a small area that’s been done now for two years and it’s looking pretty good.” Wetlands normally act like sponges and absorb and filter pollutants. They provide habitat for wildlife but are also a refuge for humans, says Perasso. The sheet mulching is burying invasive seeds so that native plants and trees, like dogwood and willow, will have a better chance. “It’s still experimental. Can’t say for sure whether or not it’s going to work but I think we’re a long way down the road now and it’s looking promising.”

The organic stew is ready. “Go ahead and give yourself a serving, maybe a nice hearty spoon size. Make sure everybody gets some first and then we can come around for seconds.” The crowd takes Tizita Aseffa’s advice. Things have come full circle, repairing the land, growing food and sharing a meal.

Partners in the project encourage individuals and groups to come down to the site to participate in hands on food/farm/and environmental educational programs. You can learn more on the websites of Seattle Tilth, Ground Up Organics and the city's parks department.

Green Acre Radio is brought to you with support from the Human Links Foundation. Engineering by CJ Lazenby.

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