Sunday, October 18, 2009

Community-Managed Safety Nets, Food Security and Zenger Farm

It should be fairly obvious by now that the last few decades have seen the tearing apart of government-backed social safety nets in much of the world, and especially in the United States. While it is true that America now has a Democratic president and a Congress controlled by Democrats, their actions to date have not inspired overwhelming confidence that these safety nets might be repaired. (Just look at the present health-care “reform” debate and how our politicians and mainstream media define this in terms of health “insurance” reform. Forcing all Americans to buy private health insurance is not the same as providing universal health care at a cost that our rapidly expanding poor class can afford.)

It is therefore necessary for communities to create their own safety nets. Volunteers must arise to begin building community connections for meeting community needs, often without expecting much help from large government or corporate institutions (though there are cases where communities are pleasantly surprised by offers of government help). A key safety net is the provision of community food security, defined by the World Health Organization as “existing when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.” (Source: WHO | Food Security)

In the United States, as the standard of living of many people has been eroded over the years, community-based volunteer organizations have arisen to address the growing lack of access to adequate food, and to build systems of community food security. There are the usual food pantries and canned-goods collection drives. But in recent years there have also arisen many urban farming/gardening organizations that promote and teach the growing of food and raising of suitable livestock within urban communities.

I knew nothing about such organizations when I was living in Southern California. But over the last couple of years I have enjoyed getting to know a few of the several community-based, nonprofit urban agriculture organizations here in Portland, and watching some of their extraordinary staff. Many of these people are young, either college students or recent college graduates who have chosen to spend two or more years of their lives as full-time volunteers in these organizations. There is a touch of the otherworldly about them – their education and career paths clearly show that they didn't go to school to get big bucks and a BMW, but they are concerned about larger issues and social justice.

I've interviewed some of these staffers in the past. You can read the interviews here: A Safety Net Of Alternative Systems - Places To Live, in which the Portland Fruit Tree Project was mentioned; and Volunteer Groups And Community Food Security, which featured Growing Gardens. This week's post is another interview, this time featuring Zenger Farm in outer southeast Portland.

Zenger Farm ( is a century-old working farm that was once owned by Ulrich Zenger, a Swiss dairy farmer, and later by his son, Ulrich Zenger Jr, who protected the farmland from commercial development. In 1994, after the death of Ulrich Jr., the City of Portland's Bureau of Environmental Services purchased the farm. In the years since then, the farm has been leased by concerned citizens who incorporated as Friends of Zenger Farm, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the farm as a public space and community resource for sustainable urban food production. Friends of Zenger Farm also works in partnership with the City to oversee a 10-acre wetland adjoining the farm.

On a pleasant, sunny October morning, I had the opportunity to meet with Prairie Hale, Community Involvement Coordinator for Zenger Farm. I was primarily interested in trying to quantify the impact of the farm in building local safety nets and contributing to a resilient community, although there were other things that I wanted to explore. Below are my questions (in bold type), and Prairie's answers.

Has anyone tried to measure or quantify the impact of Zenger Farm on the surrounding community? There has not been a lot of measurement. However, there are general observable impacts. Zenger Farm serves as a place for field trips and educational and volunteer opportunities to learn about the natural world and develop a connection to that world; and to learn about growing, cooking and preserving food, thus fostering self-sufficiency.

The farm is known as a positive place and a good neighbor in the community. The farm staff are aware of what is happening in the neighborhood and are contributing to neighborhood goals. Not only does the farm grow food for the neighborhood, but it forms partnerships with neighbors to run egg co-operatives and farmers markets with the goal of providing culturally appropriate, fresh affordable food for the community. (However, the egg co-op has not yet attracted many members from the surrounding neighborhoods.)

The farmers market is a joint venture with the Lents Food Group, and the market has an “international” flavor. The market has provisions for accepting WIC (Women, Infants and Children) coupons, food stamps and senior coupons, and has a food-stamp matching program.

Field trips to the farm are conducted by local schools and teachers from public, private and alternative schools in the Lents and Powellhurst-Gilbert neighborhoods. The farm also serves as a gathering place to build a sense of community among residents.

The farm is part of a larger urban agriculture “community of knowledge,” both in the Portland metro area and worldwide.

On a related note, what contribution does Zenger Farm make toward building a “resilient community”? (A resilient community is able to survive economic shocks without its members being dislocated by those shocks.) The farm contributes toward increasing food security – that is, a stable supply of affordable healthy food in the neighborhood, as well as generating increasing numbers of people with skills to grow, cook and eat on a tight budget. The farm has offered a very popular class in local schools, named “How to Buy Food On A Budget.” This class has been taught in both English and Spanish, and has attracted both children and their parents.

What are the demographics of the neighborhoods surrounding Zenger Farm? The farm is adjoined by the Lents and Powellhurst-Gilbert neighborhoods. Much of this area is poor, yet many of the residents are actively trying to better their neighborhoods. Twenty-five percent of the population can be classified as “food-insecure.” The area was ranked “last in livability” according to a recent survey. The poor population is also being squeezed by gentrification (the encroachment of wealthy buyers of real estate into the neighborhoods), resulting in rising rents and real estate prices.

For the majority of schoolchildren, English is a second language. Only 30 percent are native English speakers. Spanish is the first language for another thirty percent; then the remainder are from Russian, Vietnamese or Laotian backgrounds. Zenger Farm is actively seeking translators for its classes and workshops.

How would you rate the ability of non-profit groups to make up for the dismantling of social safety nets formerly provided by local governments? There is some uncertainty regarding that question. For residents under stress in a disadvantaged urban neighborhood, worries about personal and family needs might take away energy from community organizing. Also, there is a lot of anonymity in cities, whereas small rural communities tend to be much more tightly-knit, and much more willing to pull together in times of crisis.

However, there are good examples of urban and neighborhood groups meeting neighborhood needs. One example is “Generous Ventures” on southeast 111th Street, a group that salvages food that might otherwise go to waste, and distributes it to the poor.

What sort of lifestyle adjustments are required of a member of a non-profit organization? (In other words, most of the people I've met from groups like Growing Gardens or the Portland Fruit Tree Project did not go to school in order to get rich!) If someone is going to commit himself or herself to this kind of service, what should their expectations be? Not surprisingly, don't expect to get rich. Seek to gain satisfaction from developing a strong social network so we can take care of one another and provide for our needs.

(At this point, Prairie told me more of the personal events that had led her down this path. She related her family's Quaker background and how she spent most of her life in a small rural Oregon farm community. But as a result of an injury of a family member and loss of income, she and her family found themselves in Ecuador for a year when she was around eleven. That experience, and seeing the drastic difference between American life and the standard of living of the Ecuadoran population, was the catalyst of her interest in social justice.

As a result of that experience, she went to Earlham College, a Quaker institution of higher learning, and obtained a degree in Peace and Global Studies, a field of study which teaches nonviolent ways of bringing peace and social justice where it is lacking. One lesson she remembers is summed up in this saying: “Create the change that the community is ready for.”)

Regarding “closing the loop”: farming tends to deplete soils unless all organic wastes are properly composted and returned to the soil. Zenger Farm does not do humanure composting at this time, but have you ever thought about it? If you tried it, would you do so as part of a larger study of the feasibilty of this sort of composting in an urban environment? Humanure composting is feasible, but it requires a level of expertise and management that Zenger Farm does not yet possess. It seems to be more feasible on the scale of individual homes. As far as composting in general, Zenger buys compost now, but is looking to cut expenses by recycling more of its own plant matter into compost.

Are there any other general research projects being undertaken by Zenger Farm? The farm has not traditionally been involved in research, although a new focus is starting this year, with two farmers who want to try experimental organic techniques. The farm would like to explore other areas of research, such as adding more rainwater catchment and measuring the decrease in use of City water for irrigation when stored rainwater is used. They also want to do more water testing and measurement of sedimentation in the adjacent wetland, and want to explore various furrow and plowing arrangements to limit sediment runoff and erosion.

Do you have any thoughts on remediating urban sites that have been contaminated by industrial pollutants, in order to prepare these sites for urban agriculture? Research has been done on the use of fungi and mushrooms to rehabilitate sites. One prominent worker in this field is Paul Stamitz, a mycologist.

That concluded my interview with Prairie. As I was leaving, I remarked that it was refreshing to see younger people looking for more than a life of materialism and creature comfort (as opposed to my generation, who went to school solely to acquire big houses and BMW's), and that maybe we were witnessing a revival of something that had not been seen in the U.S. since the 1960's. She agreed, and said that it's not just young people who are waking up. Many older people are seeing that the American dream doesn't work, and are starting to want something more meaningful. Maybe there's hope for us after all.

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