The urban wave of growing organic food shows no signs of cresting. Seattle is no exception. Community farms, p-patches and guerrilla gardens are sprouting as fast as high rises to accommodate more and more people moving to the area. But with the population growth comes increased inequality and a sharp rise in those relying on food banks. Is urban farming able to grow enough food for the growing need?
Visits to the Seattle Community Farm and the Rainier Valley Food Bank show some of the opportunities and challenges.
Drive too fast, text non-stop and you'll likely miss an urban farm getaway off Martin Luther King Boulevard in the Rainier Valley. But if you have a taste for raspberries, nose for compost and appetite for growing organic veggies for all, you may know about a place called Seattle Community Farm. It's growing season, and the days are long. Soon it will be giving season and bok choy, lettuce, mustard greens and arugula will be ready for those who would otherwise go without.
“There's two main ways people get our produce," says Scott Behmer, farm manager at Seattle Community Farm. “One is through the Rainier Valley Food Bank. We donate a lot to them and we also have a work-trade program. If you have a hard time affording fresh veggies you can come volunteer and take some veggies home with you.”
Tucked between a rare green belt and the Rainier Vista Housing Project, the half-acre plot of land was donated by the Seattle Housing Authority and is managed by Solid Ground, a non-profit whose mission is building community to end poverty. With initial funding from the city, the farm grows a wide variety of veggies designed to fit with different cultural cuisines as well as providing land for experiments by UW students and plots for youth gardens.
On this day, volunteers are making a trellis for snap peas. Is there a battery for a drill, someone asks. Behmer laughs. “We don't have electricity out here. It's all a little low tech.” The volunteer finds a hammer and nails. Then slowly many hands join to wrap twine up and over the trellis, again and again. “Just be careful," cautions Behmer, “because they're really fragile.” A snap pea is accidentally broken. “Yeah, retraining it toward the ground,” he wryly observes.
Building a trellis for peas that will go to people you don't know may not seem like everyone's idea of how to spend a Saturday. But Casey Ralston, co-captain of a volunteer team with Seattle Works, a nonprofit that links people with projects all over the city, says working in the gardens or just visiting the community farm is a way for people to reconnect with their environment well apart from smart phones and computers. “There can be huge value in little plots of wild places. I mean this isn't even wild but it's at least natural looking, right? For kids who only see Rainier Ave, something like this can be a huge difference for them. They can see wild critters, plants growing.”
On cue, children from Rainier Vista Housing arrive to see what's happening. One boy remembers tomatoes that grew on a trellis last year. “There are tomatoes here right?” There will be soon, he's told. Then he notices radishes rising from the soil. “They need to get a little fatter,” explains this reporter, “but they're starting to be big.” “Yeah,” he says, “they're about to be big.”
Some 6,000 to 10,000 pounds of organic vegetables are grown at the farm annually. Visit the Rainier Valley Food Bank around the corner, however, and you'll see something of the demand.
Sam Osborne, the food bank executive director, says, “Just in the first four months of this year we've had over 4,000 more people walk through the door and out with food than the same period in 2013. That's about a 40 percent increase.” He sums up the reasons: cuts to SNAP, the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in Fall 2013; cuts to long-term unemployment benefits; too few well paying jobs. And there's one other reason, says Osborne: People know quality food and locally grown veggies are available at the food bank summer to fall, no questions asked.
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