Rainier Valley programs build food justice one garden at a time

Green Acre Radio: The Just Garden Project is part of a network of efforts to improve food choices for people often forced to accept less-healthy ways of feeding themselves and their families.
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Green Acre Radio: The Just Garden Project is part of a network of efforts to improve food choices for people often forced to accept less-healthy ways of feeding themselves and their families.

As the urban food movement expands nationwide, the idea of “food justice” is growing with it. In King County, the Just Garden Project celebrates growing food with a commitment to building gardens for people in need.  Since the project began, 70 “just” gardens have been built for food banks, families and senior centers.

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There’s some who can’t get enough of volunteering. Take Jared Peck. At his day job he’s an Americorp volunteer with King County Housing. And on a beautiful Saturday he’s passing buckets of soil, assembly line style, for new raised garden beds to grow food for those in need. “One good thing about an assembly line is once it starts it doesn’t stop. We’ll get people in a line, we can talk, have fun and move buckets at the same time.”

The garden beds are part of the Just Garden Project. The non-profit began two years ago after community members came together to throw a garden party. A woman named Stephanie Snyder made a pledge to party only if there was food justice. Since then 70 gardens have been built for those without access to high-quality produce.

Today’s raised beds will grow greens for the Rainier Valley Food Bank and Full Life Care, a non-profit day care facility for seniors and the disabled. “There’s a global health crisis. Really scary things are happening for kids around nutrition and at the Just Garden Project what we see is we have everything we need as a community to solve these issues together," says Snyder. To him, growing food is the foundation: “Because for a lot of our families you can’t afford organic vegetables, it’s outside your budget. You can spend a dollar on a ramen noodle or you can spend a dollar on a non-organic head of lettuce. You’re going to buy the ramen noodle. But if you’re growing vegetables in your yard you’re going to pick those vegetables put them in your ramen noodle and then your children have nourishment.”

Twenty percent of all children in King County are without adequate nourishment. One in five is food insecure, according to United Way statistics. And it’s not just children. It’s everyone forced to choose between housing, food and utilities. Sam Osborne directs the Rainier Valley Food Bank. Three of the raised beds being put in by volunteers with the Just Garden Project will grow food for his clients. “We’ll probably grow mainly leafy greens over there, bok choy, different kinds of chard and kale,” Osborne says.

Produce is very popular but usually runs out. Sixty percent of his guests, as Osborne calls them, are families with children. The Rainier Valley Food Bank, one of the busiest in Seattle, serves 10,000 to 11,000 people a month. That’s up from 7,000-8,000 just two years ago. “So we’ve seen a pretty staggering increase,' Osborne says. "That’s in addition to the 65 percent increase that happened between 2007 and 2009 when the economy first tanked.”

Just as volunteers build edible gardens with the Just Garden Project, they make things happen at the food bank. Wesley Hall volunteers five days a week. He wears a badge that says “Certified Grocery Rescue Representative," identifying him with a program of Food Lifeline. “Comes with a title.” Hall laughs but is very concerned about the shrinking supply of food.

A good amount used to come from supermarkets who bought bulk — vegetables, dairy products, canned goods. The extra that wasn’t immediately sold went to food banks. But with a weak economy, stores stopped or cut back on the practice. “On the books it’s waste but in reality it was giving to the food banks what they had left over. Now if we want to operate we’re going to have to spend the money to buy the bulk of the food we need. It’s not all donations. People make a mistake and say they donate stuff here. No. Seventy-five percent is bought.”

The food bank gets fresh produce from the Seattle Community Farm at Rainier Vista and the new, Rainier Beach Urban Farm and Wetland. Seeds and starts are supplied by Seattle Tilth and Lettuce Link. But there’s never enough. In a park adjacent to the assembly line of volunteers building raised beds, teens with Ground Up Organics are partnering with the Just Garden Project. They prepare basil, tomato and lettuce starts for distribution.

“They decided they wanted to gift these plants to the community in order to make them fully accessible,” says Ground Up Organics staff member Barbara Jefferson. Why did the teens decide to give the plants away? Fourteen year old Lo’Tajah Coverson, 14 years old, says: “To give back to people with low income ‘cause some people can’t afford to do their own garden or don’t even have the space to start doing that.”

Jefferson says it’s teaching youth about the power of urban agriculture versus the standard industrial model. In this case, it’s a power committed to food justice and a culture of growing for all. Volunteers with Just Garden’s Spring into Bed project built ten gardens. The next garden build is scheduled for June 2.

Green Acre Radio receives support from the Human Links Foundation. Engineering by CJ Lazenby and produced in the studios of Jack Straw Productions and KBCS.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin is an environmental reporter, whose work on the subject began with a project for the King Conservation District. Green Acre Radio was born shortly afterward. Her work is currently supported by the Human Links Foundation. She was one of the founding reporters for Pacifica's Free Speech Radio News and has been a contributor to the National Radio Project's Making Contact.