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Seattle’s gardening challenge: Meeting the demand

The Rainier Valley Food Bank Credit: Photo: Rebecca Bowring

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.

Who comes here? “I like to say our line here is a microcosm of the population of planet earth,” Osborne says. He explains, “Think of the populations of different continents and different countries and proportionately that's kind of the make up of our crowd here, one of the most diverse parts of the city and really of the nation.”

In 2008 Seattle passed a measure setting up its Food Action Plan to improve the local and regional food system and address the lack of access to healthy food for all. Promoting healthy food access points and using the city's purchasing and contracting power to support healthy, local and sustainably produced food were two of the goals. Land-use codes were adapted to grow food more easily and giving gardens multiplied. Solid Ground's Nate Moxley estimates there are at least 125 community gardens, p-patches, guerrila gardens and other growing collectives. “It isn't about 'this is my little plot,' " he says. “It really speaks to the community aspect of this work. It's a supply and demand thing and making sure the efforts of gardeners are actually being used and accessed by the people who need it.”

Despite the effort, the demand for affordable, local, healthy and culturally appropriate food is growing faster than community farms and giving gardens can deliver. Twenty-seven percent of Seattle's increasingly diverse population is considered food insecure, according to the city's Human Services Division. In other words, they don't always know where the next meal is coming from, let alone if it will be healthy. And the percentage could be higher, says Jess Chow, a planner with Human Services. Certain populations are not recorded well by community level data, she says. “We know there are greater numbers of Native Americans, immigrants and refugees,” who may not be documented or prefer to be invisible. 

The big question, says Chow, is how to increase the volume of healthy free food and how to distribute it to those who need it most. The Human Service Division plans to put out funds shortly for competitive bids for food distribution, food banks, food sustainability, home food delivery and meal programs. The proposals will have to be cost effective. The food also has to be culturally accessible and relevant for people who come to emergency food programs.

Partners in the effort to map out a more comprehensive food distribution plan include the Seattle Food Committee, Northwest Agriculture Business Center and Seattle Food Action Plan. If numbers and the visits to the farm and food bank speak to the need, they've got their work cut out for them.

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