Marra Farm serves with seeds, soil and sunshine

Harvesting chard at Marra Farm

Nutrition & Garden Educator Pamela Ronson, Dani Ladyka from Apple Corps and volunteer Sarah Rehdner harvest chard at Marra Farm.

Recently, I bused to the South Park neighborhood to volunteer at Solid Ground’s Giving Garden at Marra Farm, a project run by our Lettuce Link program. Farmer Scott Behmer wasn’t surprised when I arrived late: “This is a really underserved area, regarding transportation and lots of other services. And really, that’s why we’re here.”

Scott explained that the farm has two main functions: food production and education, or in other words, “fighting the symptoms and fighting the causes.” He added, “Food banks are really important, but they won’t end hunger. Education is one of the ways we can change the system.”

I witnessed the education side of Lettuce Link’s work when a 5th grade class arrived from Salmon Bay K-8 School, an alternative public school located in Ballard. The group gathered around Scott for a brief orientation, and he explained the origins of Marra Farm: “All the land around the city used to be farmland to feed the city. This bit of land has stayed farmland.” The farm is named after the Marra family, who used to own and work the land.

He gave the students a brief intro to the food industry as well, explaining that each bite of food travels an average of 1,500 miles. “Some of it is food that we can grow here, and we still get it from far away.”

Throughout the year, the farm produces 25-30 different vegetables, which last year resulted in 15,000 pounds of food (not including another 8,000 pounds from our Seattle Community Farm in the Rainier Valley). That day the harvest included parsley, loose-leaf lettuce, chard and squash.

The many colors of Swiss chard

Colorful Swiss chard, ready to be harvested

The produce is mostly donated to food banks in the area, as well as the South Park Senior Center and South Park Community Kitchen. Lettuce Link also offers Work Trade opportunities, where volunteers can help maintain the farm in exchange for produce.

The day I volunteered, Providence Regina House – a food and clothing bank that serves four zip codes from South Park to Des Moines – came to collect food. Jack Wagstaff, Providence Regina House Program Manager, echoed Scott, saying that their food bank is intentionally located in that area, because “it’s radically underserved by anyone else.”

Before the food bank truck arrived, the students were each able to harvest two acorn squash. “We all have times where we get to help others, and we all have times where we get to be helped by others,” Scott told them. “Today, you get to be the helpers.”

Acorn squash, harvested by the 5th-grade volunteers

Acorn squash, harvested by the 5th-grade volunteers

The class teacher, Nicolette Jensen, said she has brought her class to the farm for the last three years. She feels it’s important for the students to “learn about the food industry and about how food used to be in the city. I think that little bit of education goes a long way.”

After harvesting, we washed the produce and stacked it in crates, ready for pickup. As the students ate their lunch, volunteers and employees gathered under the tent; Jack from Providence Regina House shared some snacks, and a neighbor joined us from across the street. Though everyone came from different places and had different levels of experience, a sense of community and shared purpose was clear at Marra Farm.

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Food Justice: What does it mean to learn it, grow it, live it?

PrintFor some, Chefs Night Out has been a longstanding tradition of food, fun and fundraising. Local food and wine enthusiasts gather for a cocktail hour, auction, and a much anticipated dinner prepared tableside by one of 10 locally celebrated chefs featured at the event. This year the celebration continues on November 16 at the beautiful Seattle Design Center in the Georgetown neighborhood of Seattle.

In addition to having the opportunity to savor a gourmet four-course meal with fine wine pairings, attendees partaking in these festivities also get to do so while contributing to a cause that challenges the root causes of hunger. All proceeds from the event go toward Solid Ground’s work to achieve food justice through the Hunger & Food Resources department and its subsidiary programs. But this year is a little different; the focus is not only on food justice, it’s also on the development of food justice as a living mantra for the local community. A mantra built on the tenets of learning it, growing it, and living it.

LEARN IT
The Apple Corps program, a team of National Service members dedicated to nutrition education, works within local schools to combine standard subjects like math, science, literacy and art with cooking, wellness and physical activity. Gerald Wright, Hunger & Food Resources Director at Solid Ground, firmly believes that nutritional knowledge is power:

Apple Corps 2008The whole idea around nutrition education is that if we can really train children from an early age in all aspects of healthy eating, in understanding the value and benefit of eating balanced, nutritional meals, if we can help children at that young age really start to fall in love with healthy foods – taste it, experience it, and see that it’s good – that enables them to start making healthier choices. That is supportive of food justice.”

GROW IT
Developing an urban farm in a rapidly sprawling city like Seattle can be difficult. But the Lettuce Link program, which has been gardening and giving since 1988, is still going strong. By cooperatively operating two lively farms with their adjacent communities and collaborating with over 64 P-Patch community gardens and 18 other giving gardens, Lettuce Link manages to donate an average of 50,000 pounds of produce per year to those who need it! Marra Farm’s ¾-acre Giving Garden utilizes the dwindling farming space in Seattle and encourages folks in the South Park neighborhood to invest in growing organic food and the environment around them. Seattle Community Farm‘s repurposed sliver of land in the Rainier Vista housing community is also open to local residents and volunteers, with produce going to the Rainier Valley Food Bank and neighborhood residents with lower incomes.

Lettuce Link 1988“Lettuce Link is all about being a community place where people can not only come and learn about growing food, but they can actually experience it,” Gerald says.

The program aims to offer experiential knowledge and hands-on learning as a means of informing and encouraging the local community to grow its own food. The objective is to offer people the tools needed to ensure that price and availability don’t become the barrier to choosing fresh and healthy options. By showing people that you can grow your own food with a little bit of space and some water, that’s putting control over access and quality back into the hands of the folks who need it most. With all of the opportunities that Lettuce Link offers to stay connected to the food we eat by learning how to grow it, this element is a critical cornerstone of food justice.

LIVE IT

Eating is necessary to sustain life. Cooking, however, is not – and not everyone has equal access to the knowledge or skills to cook the vegetables they’ve been told are good for them.

Cooking Matters 1994 (by John Bolivar)

Photo by John Bolivar

Maybe people have a concept of what constitutes healthy eating. Someone goes to the doctor and their doctor tells them to go on a low-sodium diet. But they may not know how to cook foods within their new diet. We want people to be in a position of power over their eating. Knowing vegetables are healthy is different from knowing how to cook them,” offers Gerald.

This is where the Cooking Matters program comes into play. With generous in-kind donations from Charlie’s Produce and Whole Foods Market, Cooking Matters students (from kindergartners to seniors) attend hands-on cooking lessons and receive take-home groceries to continue cooking healthy recipes at home. Participants also receive food and nutrition expertise from community volunteer chefs, nutritionists and class assistants. Because “it’s not enough just to know what is nutritious and how to grow it, but also how to cook it,” Gerald says.

We’re turning the page on a community exercising the right to know, grow and eat healthy and culturally relevant foods. And while shopping, weeding or cooking can seem like laborious tasks, they empower individuals to make healthy and sustainable choices that feed their bodies and their communities.

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Seattle Community Farm: classroom-style

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The Seattle Community Farm (SCF) is really something else. Most of my young adolescent life was spent going to school not too far away in Columbia City, but the neighborhood now is much more developed than it used to be. So I got lost.

But three light rail crossings and two U-turns later, a large recently installed sign told me that I’d arrived to a narrow (1/2-acre) strip of land that would otherwise be overgrown with blackberry bushes and giantess maple-looking trees. The strip has been turned into a full-blown farm in which 100% of the produce goes to local residents of the Rainier Vista housing development in the Rainier Valley neighborhood and the Rainier Valley Food Bank.

For the next three hours, I found myself beside complete strangers who had one thing in common with me: We came to work. We harvested tomatoes, cucumbers, green beans and zucchini. We prepared beds and planted spinach and bok choy. We cut back some invasive, thorny blackberry vines. And we did something adults don’t often like to admit: We learned.

Scott Behmer is the SCF Coordinator. He told us all what to do with such enthusiasm and timeliness I had a feeling he was well versed in shaping up us (sometimes clueless) volunteers. And while we hacked at those pain-seeking blackberry bushes and burrowed our faces deep into the leaves of cucumber plants searching for ripe ones, Scott made a point to engage us in little-known facts about plants and the food system in Seattle. Like the fact that there are 29 food banks in Seattle (we all guessed around 10). As we prodded the thorny cucumbers, he asked us how long we thought the vegetables we picked that day would last at the food bank. A couple days, we guessed uncertainly? Actually, it was a couple of hours. That’s how in demand fresh, organic produce is in a community that cannot afford it otherwise. One other volunteer mentioned her experience seeing people in a pretty long line at a local food bank. All eight of us fell silent, looking for more ripe cucumbers that weren’t there.

As city-dwellers, small scale gardening and urban farming can make us feel more connected to the food we eat. Being part of the growing and picking experience can put the food on our plate under an entirely different light. But planting, watering, nurturing and harvesting while knowing full well that you, yourself, will not be able to enjoy the taste of them (save a few rogue cherry tomatoes) – but that someone with little time and fewer resources will – well that adds an entire dimension of humanity to food. Think on that a while.

But also keep in mind that there’s no standing around at the SCF. Get to work!

“Junk” vs. “real” food vs. farmers markets: What’s practical?

There’s a large misconception about how severely limited access is to healthy, nutritious food for many people living on low incomes. In his article “Is Junk Food Really Cheaper?,” Mark Bittman compares costs between fast food and “real food” found at grocery stores to be prepared at home. However, the article doesn’t take into account that even food purchased at the supermarket isn’t necessarily “real food.”

Thinking of the kind of groceries that a person living on a low income might buy, the following among others may come to mind: meat containing pink slime, mass-produced eggs, pesticide-laden vegetables, and also, processed foods galore with plenty of additives and preservatives that have a much longer shelf life than fresh produce. (And which, for someone working multiple jobs with dependents who might not have time to take weekly shopping trips, can be miracles as they are often easy-to-prepare, long-lasting foods.)

Grocery shopping

Compare the ingredients of a typical sesame seed bun on a McDonald’s Quarter Pounder with cheese and an inexpensive package of Sara Lee sesame seed buns found at a typical supermarket chain. The ingredients are practically identical. Little do we know where the meat comes from (or what, truly, goes into their “beef” patties), how the cow is raised and butchered, and how the meat is then treated and packaged for McDonald’s (pink slime). But the same goes for the largest meat retailer in the United States.

Before the truth about what pink slime is (lean, finely textured beef trimmings) and why it is pink (it’s treated with ammonia hydroxide) came out, large supermarket chains had been selling products with this meat filler in their stores. It was only after the story broke that a couple of them immediately pulled it from their shelves. Others said they would remove the product “as quickly as possible.” For someone who doesn’t always have a stable income, waiting is not an option.

What does one do when they seek a healthier lifestyle by not just buying “real food” from a supermarket but by eating truly all natural and organic produce, grass-fed meat, whole foods grains and dairy? Certainly farmers markets would be a great place to start. They provide access to fresh organic fruits and vegetables by cutting out the middleman also known as retailers. Buying directly from the farmer should reduce costs, right? Nope. According to a recent study, farmers market prices for produce were higher on average than your local grocery store.

squash, tomatoes, vegetables in bowl

On occasion, I admit to spending more on seasonal, organic produce at any given farmers market in Seattle when the exact same quality is available for less at the local natural foods store (PCC in my experience). However, this personal encounter seems to be unique to Seattle – one of the most expensive cost-of-living cities in the U.S. When I’ve visited markets in Portland, Oregon, Salt Lake City, Utah and Chicago, Illinois, I noticed the prices were much more reasonable. So without delving into the exact reason why our produce is so much more expensive than some other metropolitan areas, take a moment to really think about whether you, as an individual or supporting a family, can access organic, sustainable and affordable produce with your own personal budget, regardless of where you are in the world.

Those with higher incomes quite possibly live in more upscale neighborhoods in which local, natural markets and farmers markets are within walking or a few miles biking or driving distance. Since the housing prices in Seattle have made it difficult for middle class to find affordable housing – looking to those living on middle-to-low incomes or at poverty level – we can’t expect high-end organic markets to be available in neighborhoods where residents cannot afford their products. Expensive farmers markets won’t help much, even for those who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, a program that has received recent cuts and is constantly threatened with more.

At a recent Community Alliance for Global Justice meeting, in which concerned folks from all over Seattle came to talk about racism, classism and sexism in the global food system, one woman spoke about the Safeway in Rainier Beach, a neighborhood in South Seattle. “You all talk about there being no access to grocery stores in ‘food deserts,’ but even the Safeway close to me…their produce is horrible,” she explained. “I went into a Safeway in Ballard a few months ago, and it was like night and day.” Ballard: a popular, up-and-coming and expensive neighborhood in Northwest Seattle.

Some local farms, P-Patches and guerrilla gardeners in the greater Seattle area are working hard to ensure healthy, organic and culturally appropriate foods are available to the community. Some are listed here. Through Solid Ground’s Lettuce Link program, the Seattle Community Farm and our Giving Garden at Marra Farm are two other examples of efforts to create access to fresh organic produce. But a couple hundred acres in a metro area of 3.5 million people is only one small part of working for food justice. Real, systemic change in our food system is in order – not just talking about “real” versus “junk” food.

June 2014 Groundviews: Growing healthy partnerships

Groundviews is Solid Ground’s quarterly newsletter for our friends and supporters. Below is the June 2014 Groundviews lead story; please visit our website to read the entire issue online.

If you visit Lettuce Link’s Giving Garden at Marra Farm in Seattle’s South Park neighborhood on any given day from March to October, you’re likely to find a beehive of activity — often involving groups of students from Concord International School (pre-K through 5th grade), located just a few blocks away. Via collaboration with Solid Ground’s Lettuce Link and Apple Corps programs and Concord teachers, students learn about nutrition, the environment, and sustainable gardening and food systems. 

Amelia Swinton works one-to-one with a Concord International student. (Photo by Brad Fenstermacher)

Amelia Swinton works one-to-one with a Concord International student. (Photo by Brad Fenstermacher)

At the center of the buzzing, you might find Amelia Swinton, Lettuce Link Education Coordinator, who describes her job as “the meeting ground of two different education programs.” There’s gardening education through Lettuce Link, combined with nutrition education through Apple Corps. In the fall and winter, she partners with an Apple Corps AmeriCorps member to teach weekly indoor nutrition-education lessons at Concord. Then during the growing season, classes move outdoors for hands-on gardening at Marra Farm, where kids get to “Adopt-a-Plot” that they plant, nurture and harvest themselves. Best of all, they get to bring the veggies home for their families to enjoy.

Nate Moxley, Lettuce Link Program Manager, says it’s “a collective approach. We’re working together to achieve common goals around food justice, access and education. Almost everything that we do comes back to that.”

Engaging families
Since 1998, Solid Ground’s involvement as one of several stewarding organizations at Marra Farm has greatly increased access to healthy nutritious food in South Park, and one of the most effective conduits for this has been Concord students themselves. When Solid Ground launched the Apple Corps program in 2007 to do nutrition and fitness education in schools and nonprofits, Concord became a natural partner.

In addition to classroom lessons, there are afterschool events designed  not only to engage families, but also to encourage self-determination where healthy food choices are concerned. Annual “Market Night” celebrations are one such event, combining health and nutrition information and activities with cultural sharing presentations, and an open-air market where each kid is empowered to choose from and “purchase” a variety of fresh produce.

Rained out from the outdoor classroom, Joanne cooks up some fresh produce grown at Marra Farm. (Photo by Brad Fenstermacher)

Rained out from the outdoor classroom, Joanne cooks up some fresh produce grown at Marra Farm. (Photo by Brad Fenstermacher)

At Concord’s recent Market Night, Amelia introduced us to Joanne – a 4th grader and very enthusiastic budding gardener – who has brought her family to the Farm on several occasions. Joanne tells us, “I like Marra Farm because they garden, and also they let other kids do it.” Her favorite veggie to grow is “peas. They’re actually a little hard; you have to use sticks so they can climb, and you need to water them and weed them every single time.”

Joanne definitely thinks it’s better to grow your own food rather than buy it in a grocery store because, “It’s more nutritious, because you’re proud of yourself, and you think it’s very good!” She says someday, “I’m going to go and make my own garden in the back of my house.” For now, she and her parents are happy to live so close to Marra Farm.

Another way families get involved is through student-led Community Kitchens, known at Concord as “4th Grade Cooks.” Amelia says, “The logic behind 4th Grade Cooks is that the best way to learn something is to teach it – and kids should be the nutrition teachers for their families. Kids are a great ‘carrot’ to get their whole family involved, and then it becomes a night where kids are in the lead in cooking healthy food – the end result being a fun, positive space where everybody eats a healthy, free dinner. And what family doesn’t want to come cook with their cute kid?”

Amelia Swinton helps Concord International 5th graders tell the difference between weeds and edible plants. (Photo by Brad Fenstermacher)

Amelia Swinton helps Concord International 5th graders tell the difference between weeds and edible plants. (Photo by Brad Fenstermacher)

Honoring community strengths
In South Park, 30% of residents speak Spanish, and Latino students make up the largest ethnic group (over 61%) at Concord. As an international school, the dual-language immersion program strives for all students to become bilingual/biliterate in English and Spanish. While Amelia is fluent in Spanish, she says she hopes that Solid Ground’s work in South Park will become “more community based and build leadership amongst folks from the neighborhoods where we’re working. As a white educator not from the community, this feels especially important to me.”

One way Amelia connects the community to gardening and nutrition education efforts is to invite parents and teachers to guest-teach classes in their areas of expertise. Recently, one student’s mom gave his class a tour of the Marra Farm Chicken Co-op that she helped to create. “To encourage families to share some of their knowledge is a really powerful way of switching out those roles of who has knowledge, and who’s the giver of knowledge, and who’s the receiver of knowledge.”

But she adds, “I think the most important kernels of my work at Marra Farm are getting kids to bond with nature and healthy eating – and doing so in a way that acknowledges how agriculture and farming have been felt really disproportionately by different communities. Particularly in the Latino community, there’s been a lot of suffering through agriculture. There is also a huge amount of knowledge and pride. I hope the program continues to grow in a way that acknowledges people’s different experiences, while leading with the really beautiful and important things that happen when people love on their environment, feed their bodies well, and treat animals with respect.”

Amelia says, “Part of what makes nutrition education and the Marra Farm Giving Garden such a natural fit is that nutrition is all about, ‘Eat your fruits and veggies!’ And the Giving Garden makes it possible in a community that would otherwise struggle to access produce. Where do you get fresh vegetables? Marra Farm! Actually being able to say, ‘This is important and this is how you can get it’ is really powerful.”

Cooking Matters’ diabetes classes meet an increasing need

Everyone lives with diabetes these days. Of course, the 25.8 million Americans who are currently diagnosed with it experience the brunt of the disease. But everyone lives with it. Whether you’re genetically predisposed to it, have high blood pressure or even just watch what you eat, it’s all around you.

Choose My Plate is the new Food Pyramid

Choose My Plate is the new Food Pyramid

In a food system where the cheaper, highly concentrated high fructose corn syrup regularly replaces real sugar and enriched wheat-packed processed foods dominate the affordable grocery market, the influx of people living on low incomes with diabetes is no mere coincidence. So, in a society with disparities in access to healthy food options, we all must think before we eat and make the right choices, whether it’s to prevent diabetes, maintain our health, or provide for a diabetic loved one.

You’ve probably heard this mantra before: Keep a healthy weight, make smart food choices and be active every day. It’s pretty easy to say. But in communities with limited access to affordable fresh produce, the actual doing of those things is incredibly difficult. That is why Cooking Matters, a program of Solid Ground in partnership with Share Our Strength, has started to offer diabetes classes. The series is made up of six weekly classes and focuses on diabetes prevention and management through healthy choices about food and physical activity.

While this disease becomes more commonplace, it can still be a difficult thing to talk about, especially for those living on low incomes. Since access to healthy food is a tough issue in the first place, openly discussing the physical and emotional tolls that diabetics endure can be challenging. This type of discussion is encouraged in Week 1, where the information provided is also meant to complement the current curriculum taught in Cooking Matters for Adults classes.

This first series for Cooking Matters Seattle was held at the Sea Mar Community Health Center in Burien, a region in King County that typically sees a lot of families and individuals living on low incomes from a diverse range of cultural backgrounds.

“[Cultural diets] do play a big role in how we structure the class,” says Sandra Williams, Cooking Matters Program Coordinator at Solid Ground. “We try as best as we can to diversify a recipe. At the beginning of the series (Week 1), we will ask participants, ‘What are some things that you’d like to learn in class?’ ” she says, explaining that healthy versions of traditional recipes or ingredient substitutions can be planned out over the course of the class series. “Oftentimes people are vegetarian or have different beliefs. So if they’re Kosher, we make sure to note that and take that into account.”

As the first local Cooking Matters class focusing on diabetes-centric nutrition, Sandra says that attendance was at capacity. Having access to knowledgeable specialists may have been a factor. “In the diabetes class, we do require that the nutritionist is a registered dietician,” Sandra says. “Unlike our other adult, family and teen classes where we require volunteers to have some background in nutrition and cooking, but not a degree.”

If the goal is to expand these diabetes-focused classes to more regions, more often, then we’re on our way. Another series is due in the fall of 2014. But new class series are heavily dependent on word of mouth from previous program participants, volunteers and donors. “We teach healthy cooking, nutrition and how to prevent diseases,” says Sandra. “I feel like people gain a lot from the class, and yet we don’t have enough resources to offer the curriculum [more frequently].”

Please click here if you’d like to learn more about participating in, volunteering for or coordinating a Cooking Matters class. Can’t wait until fall? ChooseMyPlate.gov is a useful, free tool you can use to put together nutritious, preventative meals yourself.

Cooking Matters receives local in-kind donations from Charlie’s Produce and Whole Foods Market.

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