Friday, April 24, 2009

Volunteer Groups And Community Food Security

As has been stated repeatedly on this blog, the globalized, industrialized culture of modern advanced civilization is under great and increasing stress, due to resource constraints, climate change and economic collapse. This stress is severe enough to threaten the small units that make up our modern society – the homes, families, streets and neighborhoods in which most of us live. I seek to do my part to investigate strategies for making neighborhoods and communities resilient in the face of our present stresses. In this I am hardly alone, as there are many individuals and groups striving to achieve the same goal.

In America the challenge of achieving resilience is particularly acute, as most Americans acquire necessities by going into debt, thus forcing them to rely on the breaking systems of the “official” economy. Getting out of debt is very hard in many cases, due to rising prices or diminished earning power (i.e., low wages). Those who lose their jobs usually wind up losing almost everything they “own,” since their ownership is based on making monthly payments on an interest-bearing debt. A key, therefore, to getting out of debt and becoming more resilient is finding strategies which allow people to meet a portion of their basic needs for free or at very low cost.

One such strategy is urban food gardening. Yet urban gardening is a challenge in itself, since most Americans don't live on a farm and don't know how to garden for food, having never grown a food crop. I know how much of a challenge this was for me when I started in 2007 in Southern California. Later that year, when I moved to Oregon, I started a garden in my new backyard. I was trying to grow plants I had never seen before, and was anxious that I wouldn't be able to tell a fava bean plant from a weed.

I was greatly helped in my gardening efforts by the discovery of local, non-profit, volunteer groups of people who have made it their business to host classes on gardening, food preparation and food preservation, and who provide help to residents looking to start gardening for food. Growing Gardens, of Portland, Oregon is one such group. I have had the pleasure of attending several classes hosted by them, on subjects such as urban chicken-keeping, winterizing the garden, food preservation and canning, urban chicken-coop building, and seed saving. Their connection to community resilience seemed to be a natural and obvious topic to explore, so I arranged to interview one of their staff to discuss this in more detail.

Thus it was that I got to spend a bit of time with Growing Gardens staffer Rodney Bender last week. We met at their headquarters, a simple rented house which has been turned into offices and storage space to support their activities. Rodney's time was somewhat constrained, as they are very busy with this being the growing season, but he was gracious enough to give me about a half-hour. Here are some questions I asked, along with his answers:

How did Growing Gardens start? During the early 1990's, a gentleman noticed the poverty of some local residents, and began building raised-bed gardens for them, using his own materials and money. As word got out about what he was doing, demand for his services rose quickly, and he soon found himself unable to meet all the needs that were popping up. In 1996, he met a network of volunteers who offered to turn his effort into a non-profit organization to carry on his work. (According to the GG website, this first non-profit was called the Portland Home Garden Project. Later, the name was changed to Growing Gardens.)

What is the mission of Growing Gardens? Their mission is to provide food security to people whose income would normally be insufficient for such security. They do this by transferring skill-sets to people without prior gardening experience, as well as building actual gardens in the yards of low-income residents. Over the years they have installed a large number of gardens, both at single-family homes and in apartment complexes. (Rodney provided an interesting quote: “Give a man a carrot and he will eat for a day; teach a man to grow carrots and he will eat for a lifetime.” I laughed and told him that that was a vegetarian version of a similar slogan I had once heard.)

Rodney spoke of how GG's approach to gardening had evolved over the years. A specific example concerns raised bed gardening. When the project first started, volunteers would build wooden box raised beds in people's yards. However, over time the wood would rot and the soil would be compacted or lost, necessitating an expensive rebuild of the raised bed. This was clearly not sustainable for low-income gardeners, so GG changed its approach to building raised mounds directly on ground level, on top of a layer of newspaper. With this “raised mound”/sheet-mulching approach, installing and maintaining a garden bed is much cheaper.

You said that Growing Gardens has installed apartment gardens. How did that work out? Evidently, they have been able to install gardens in 45 apartment complexes. However, there are unique challenges to starting an apartment garden. First, one must find tenants who are willing and enthusiastic, and obtain permission from the management. This is usually the easy part. The harder part is organizing the daily labor and care needed for a successful garden. Sometimes the original enthusiastic tenants lose interest; sometimes they just move away. In any case, these gardens often wind up as weed patches after a few years. Skillful community outreach and organizing is key to a successful apartment garden.

Is Growing Gardens reaching out city-wide, or are your efforts focused mainly on a certain region? Growing Gardens is focused mainly on the east side for the present. However, they hope to expand to the west as they are able to add staff and resources.

How easy is it to find all of the volunteer helpers and teachers on whom you rely? That part is actually very easy, as GG maintains a listserv where those who want to volunteer can sign up. To date, over 1,000 people have signed up in one capacity or another. (For those Portlanders who are interested, you can sign up here:

How do you see urban gardening contributing to the establishment of a strong local economy? Urban gardening is a growing contributor to the local Portland economy, with many local merchants taking an interest. One obvious example is the many local restaurants and farmers' market stands that are now buying and selling garden-raised produce. (That prompted me to ask, “There are broad food-safety laws being proposed in the United States Congress, laws that would impose stringent regulations on food grown for commercial use, no matter where it is grown. How do you see these proposed laws affecting the contribution of urban gardening to our local economy?” Rodney was unaware of bills such as H.R. 875 and its cousins, but my question definitely aroused his interest.)

What advice do you have for people who want to start something similar to Growing Gardens in other cities? First, start small, so that you don't get overwhelmed. If the group's main focus is helping poorer families install home gardens, start with five to ten families at first. Second, keep it simple (especially at first). Begin by teaching simple gardening methods. And where supplies are needed, use free or recycled resources wherever possible.

That concluded our interview. One day I'd like to be a helper (and a witness) at one of their garden installation “parties”; if I can do that, I'll write a post describing it. Growing Gardens is an example for others in other locales to imitate. Another such example is the Portland Fruit Tree Project (, a group that collects gleanings from backyard fruit trees in order to donate them to charity. They got their inspiration from a similar fruit tree project in Canada, which now has at least two such projects including the Vancouver Fruit Tree Project (, located in Vancouver, British Columbia, and the Victoria Frut Tree Project (, located in Victoria, British Columbia. The Victoria Project was featured on a 2006 broadcast of Deconstructing Dinner, a Canadian food security radio program (

I have a few closing thoughts on the subject of volunteer groups and food security. First, volunteer groups will play a vital role in establishing resilient neighborhoods, especially those groups that teach self-sufficiency skills. A whole body of knowledge has largely been lost to our generation, which has only known reliance on far-flung global systems for the most part. Second, the Internet is a great resource for connecting with like-minded people. If you have a skill or a benefit that you would like to impart to your local community and you're wondering where to start, you'll probably be able to find someone in another locality who is already doing (or trying to do) what you want to do. Feel free to write others in other localities who are interested in doing the same things. You might even want to arrange visits where you can observe and learn from what others are doing.

Lastly, consider petitioning your local governments for changes in the way they specify greenery for public places. I think particularly of the city easements that exist in front of houses on many residential streets, and how these are usually planted with ornamental, non-fruiting trees. You might suggest that your city use its funds to plant trees that bear useful things like various fruits, nuts and olives. Such plantings would provide the beginnings of a very public safety net of food security.

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