On Kids & Carrots

This post, written by Jessica Sherrow, a Harvest Against Hunger Summer VISTA with Lettuce Link, originally appeared on the Lettuce Link blog. Lettuce Link is one of several partners stewarding original urban farmland at Marra Farm in Seattle’s South Park neighborhood.

A handful of carrots!

A handful of carrots!

Marra Farm is a place that defies stereotypes. The word ‘farm’ even takes on a new meaning when applied to our little agricultural oasis in South Park. The images associated with that word – solitary, quiet, pastoral – dissolve when you step onto our farm.

Truthfully, it can be a little chaotic. Kids from Concord International Elementary or the South Park Community Center running around; a few dozen of our 1,800 annual volunteers working and digging and planting; planes, trains and cars filling the air with that distinct urban din – it’s not at all what you would expect on a farm.

So, true to form, Marra Farm manages to do what many parents thought impossible: It makes kids love vegetables. It’s a bold statement, we know. But it’s a hard thing to deny when a 5-year-old, while pulling one carrot out of the ground and simultaneously munching on another exclaims,


And when you think about everything these kids experience throughout the growing season, it makes perfect sense. They dig in the dirt and plant seeds. They water to their heart’s content, and then they watch their little plants grow.

Children's Garden sign at Marra FarmThey harvest the veggies themselves – chard, sweet peas, carrots, broccoli – and help prepare a snack especially for them. Today, it’s Chinese Veggies and Rice, and it’s a hit.

We can’t help but wonder, then, if all children are secretly veggie-lovers? It appears the only thing kids need is a little involvement in their food – planting a seed or chopping a leaf – anything to make it more fun, more exciting, and more delicious. After all, if we can get a 3rd grader to eat kale, the sky truly is the limit…

For more information on gardening and cooking with kids, check out these amazing projects: Lettuce Link’s Seattle Community Farm, GRuB: Growing Healthy Food, People, and Communities, Seattle Youth Garden Works, Seattle Tilth, and The Edible Schoolyard Project.

Many hands, cleaning carrots

Many hands, cleaning carrots

Fresh sprouts: The Seattle Community Farm opens!

Caitlyn Gilman bubbles over at the Grand Opening of the Seattle Community Farm

We held the Grand Opening of the new Seattle Community Farm this past Saturday, June 25th. OK, that is such a blasé sentence, inadequate to convey the buoyant sense of hope and possibility that was in the air as surely as crops to feed a hungry community are about to break forth from the Farm.

The words “grand” and “opening” are so overused, conjuring images of chain stores popping up like weeds, nothing more grand than asphalt, nor more open than your wallet. But if we stop for a second to really consider these what these words mean, we’ll get a better sense of the what was going on this lovely afternoon.

Lettuce Link Program Manager Michelle Bates-Benetua

A third of an acre of neatly contoured garden beds, the Seattle Community Farm runs in a narrow strip from Andover to Lilac streets, a stone’s throw from the Link Light Rail tracks on MLK Jr Way S, snug up against the hindquarters of Beacon Hill.

While the size might hardly seem grand, the design of the farm certainly is!

Aidan Murphy and Caitlyn Gilman paint worm bins

Borne of the growing urban agriculture renaissance and shepherded by Solid Ground’s Lettuce Link program, the project has turned a neglected strip of defacto parking lot into a model for how we can nourish a community.

The Farm has drawn in the resources of the City of Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods, the Seattle Housing Authority (who owns the land), the US Department of Agriculture (which provided startup funds for the project), residents of the Rainier Vista housing development and Rainier Valley communities, local designers, artists, AmeriCorps teams and many others.

Landscape designer Eric Higbee and scarecrows

Through months of hard labor, the land has been transformed. Literally tons of rock for walls and structures, sand for drainage and topsoil were moved and sculpted into 90 loamy garden beds, a children’s garden, and a community gathering space. The site was designed by landscape architect Eric Higbee with input from the neighborhood.

Scott Behmer's office is cooler than yours!

Its transformation was  overseen by Farm Coordinator Scott Behmer, whose office in the corner of the large tool shed (built by volunteers from the adjacent Habitat for Humanity build site) is truly a room with a view, with an open window surveying the property.

Baby broccoli

All but one of the beds is planted, and while our dreary spring has dampened the progress, there are so many seeds germinating and starts rooting that you can practically hear the chard, beets, tomatoes and myriad other crops shooting from the soil and reaching for the sky. The land is vibrating with potential! A few weeks from now it will be a riot of organic produce, the grand outcome of sunshine, healthy soil, water and caring human hands.

Seattle City Council President Richard Conlin and guests

As for opening: In this newly created Rainier Vista neighborhood, the Farm represents a truly open social experiment. It is a vessel of opportunity to be filled by the volunteer contributions of people who have come to the Rainier Valley from all around the world. At the grand opening alone, among the 100 or so guests were community members whose gardening experience started in East Africa, the Pacific Islands, Mexico, the Middle East and even the Midwestern US.

Many hands make light work!

Through a developing work trade model, neighbors who volunteer will receive a bag of fresh produce for every two hours of work, giving people living on low-incomes direct access to the healthiest organic produce possible.

Produce not taken through the work trade model will be delivered to the nearby Rainier Valley food bank for distribution to the broader community.

The Farm!

The model is open and evolving to meet the neighbors’ needs and interests, gleaned through a series of community outreach meetings that brought people from many cultures and lands together over food, language translators and the desire to eat more healthful food.

AmeriCorps member Mariah Pepper leads a farm tour

The event this weekend featured a few guest speakers, Seattle City Council President Richard Conlin and Department of Neighborhoods’ Bernie Matsuno, but the real stars of the show were the men and women from the community. When the speeches were done they walked through the rows, knowingly eyeing the nascent crop, excited voices in languages I could not even identify, hands pointing with passion at the healthy future to come.

The Giving Gardener: Take dry moments to sow spring crops

Early spring is good time to plant greens!

Rain and cold and more rain – and yet really, it is gardening season. Last week, we planted pea starts, onions, cilantro and radishes with 15 very cute 4-year-olds at Marra Farm. Their wonder and enchantment in the natural world was incredible, and amazingly enough, the rain stayed away the entire time they were at the farm.

That day was a good reminder to make use of any dry moments and get spring crops into the ground. Crops like spinach, peas and lettuces thrive in the cold, wet spring – and if they are planted too late in the spring, they are quick to wilt or go to seed in the warmer days of summer.

Jasminah, 2010

Speaking of warmer weather, this week of sunshine is a good time to think about planting summer crops like beans, cucumber and squash from seed.

Seattle gardeners generally sow these seeds from late April to late May, so save some space in your plot or determine which leafy greens will be replaced by these warm weather lovers. We will have these starts available for Giving Gardeners in another month.


Jennifer and carrots (2010)

Next week, we plant carrots with the Preschoolers. I hope the warmer weather continues so this kid-vegetable of choice is ready to harvest in late June. There is nothing quite like the delight on a child’s face as they pull a carrot up out of the ground! Well, for the Giving Gardener, there is the satisfaction in knowing that the carrot or lettuce or chard you grew was shared with someone in the community, someone that you may not know personally, but someone nourished by your garden.

Detangling the Farm Bill—part 3: What’s eating all the money?

Editor’s Note: The urban agriculture experts at Solid Ground’s Lettuce Link program are detangling the federal Farm Bill in a series of posts. You can find Amelia Swinton’s most recent post on the Lettuce Link Blog.

Pie chart showing where the money in the Farm Bill goes

Farm Bill pie

Amelia and fellow Solid Ground AmeriCorps member Ariana Taylor-Stanley will be giving a presentation on the Farm Bill and its relevance to people with low incomes and Solid Ground’s services on Thursday, March 3 at noon.

Presentation on the Farm Bill
Thursday, March 3, noon
Solid Ground, 1501 North 45th Street, Wallingford
Anyone interested in how national food policy impacts their lives

The talk will be in Solid Ground’s main first floor conference room at 1501 North 45th Street in Wallingford. Please join us to learn more about this tremendously influential piece of legislation — which determines how and what we grow, distribute and eat in this country.

Our aim is to explain why the Bill’s far-flung programs share a budgetary umbrella, and to trace health and ecological crises back to the Bill’s policies. Following the lead of the City of Seattle, we’ll offer suggestions for how the Farm Bill might become a Food Bill that is healthy, sustainable and fair for all, from seed to table.

Hope to see you on March 3!

Food justice starts with us!

Event flyerSolid Ground has spent decades helping folks have adequate food and nutrition. Over time that work has shifted from giving people food through the food bank system to looking at ways to restructure our regional food system. With many community partners, we strive to connect people more closely to the bounty that comes from our own communities. This work is especially important in low-income communities that have had limited access to healthy fresh produce.

Clean Greens is one of the visionary organizations in this work. “Founded in 2007, Clean Greens is a food justice organization that is owned and operated by residents of Seattle’s Central District,” according to its website. Its mission is to “decrease the incidence of disease in our communities by increasing residents’ access to healthy, pesticide-free produce at affordable prices. We are committed to delivering clean produce to all people in our communities, which we grow on our 22-acre farm in Duvall, Washington, and distribute via our Central District farm stand and CSA program.”

This Saturday, January 29, I’ll be MCing a fundraising event for Clean Greens and I want you all to join me there!

The Food Justice Starts with Us dinner event will be held at the Garfield Community Center, 23rd and Cherry, from 6pm to 10pm. The event features a meal cooked with local, seasonal foods by members of the Clean Greens community. Tickets are $35 and available from Brown Paper Tickets.

Clean Greens welcomes Brahm Ahmadi, co-founder of People’s Grocery in Oakland, CA, who will be giving a keynote speech on Oakland’s food justice movement. Towards the end of dinner, a short film on Clean Greens’ ongoing food justice work will be premiered. After dinner, we will be having a dessert auction, and guests can enjoy their dessert while listening to a local jazz band perform.

The event promises to be an evening of inspiration, fun and fabulous food. When we build community like this, we can make meaningful steps to secure food justice in our community! I hope to see you there!

For more info on the event, call 206.324.3114.

Detangling the Farm Bill – part 2 (a history)

Editor’s Note: The urban agriculture experts at Solid Ground’s Lettuce Link program are detangling the federal Farm Bill in a series of posts. We are reposting Amelia Swinton’s post here to help get the word out.

Author’s Note: This is a macro-history of U.S. farm policy organized around the price and income support programs for farmers and conservation initiatives that have been retroactively labeled “farm bills.” Though nutrition assistance programs do account for more than half of our present Farm Bill’s budget, these are not the principle focus of this post.

rows of wheat and combine

Putting the "dust" in industrial farming

Our story picks up in 1933, when rural economies across the United States were caught in a downward spiral. Under conditions of extreme heat and drought, desperate farmers overworked land to squeeze out maximum yields, bringing prices down and further wrecking the land (to become the Dust Bowl). Recognizing that an unregulated market was depressing the rural sector, the Department of Agriculture proposed several safety nets to be funded by taxpayers under The Agricultural Adjustment Act (read: our very first farm bill). This act set a price floor for agricultural goods so that farmers were guaranteed fair pay for their products. It also set up a system to store grains so they wouldn’t flood the market and depress prices during harvest season. Finally, soil conservation policies funded farmers to leave land fallow and to protect finite groundwater reserves.

World War II brought enormous international demand for American food, and as market prices in the agricultural sector skyrocketed, conservation programs were abandoned to meet demand. However, the government’s main role was still to limit production and champion farming interests over big business — that is, until the 1970s and true industrialization of agriculture under the “get-big-or-get-out” mantra of Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz.

Deeming conservation policies anti-business, Butz ordered all arable land into production.  Skeptics remembered the Depression’s disastrous experience with overproduction, but Butz calmed fears through free trade agreements that opened foreign markets for the vast surpluses that American farmers were now generating. The food stamp program provided another avenue for the Department of Agriculture to unload the extras — onto the plates of hungry Americans.  Crop yields of the 70s truly dwarfed those of earlier eras thanks to noxious cocktails engineered by companies like Dow and Monsanto, who rerouted the chemicals they had produced for the Vietnam War onto American farmland. Retooled “subsidy” programs (funding from the government to make an industry economically viable) grew certain calories — namely corn and soy — cheaper than ever before. Meanwhile, funding for so-called “specialty crops” like fruits and vegetables remained minimal, and methods of cultivation devastated land and water systems. These subsidies continue to provide the animal feed to keep meat and dairy cheap and have spawned an era of foods largely processed from derivations of corn.  Small-scale, sustainable farmers are indebted and unsupported — and we’re losing them.

And so the curtain opens on the food landscape we see today. Congress authorized nearly $300 billion for the 2008 Farm Bill, which continues to favor industrial over sustainable farms, quantity over quality, and processed foods over whole ones. But at least it’s cheap, right?

Amidst compounding crises of diabetes, obesity, and environmental degradation, nearly everyone is paying dearly for low-cost food.  So next time, we ponder: Where exactly do those $300 billion go (and where do they not)??

Thanks for reading, and please consider supporting Lettuce Link this holiday season as we continue to envision a city with fresh, nourishing, and affordable food for all.

Lead in soil

hands in soilUrban gardening and P-Patches have been on the rise in Seattle for quite some time. More and more city residents are enjoying the benefits of growing their own, fresh and local produce. In addition, community gardens benefit the environment, help address hunger and increased community volunteerism, to name just a few benefits. Safety has also become a concern especially in regards to the soil quality in the raised beds of many urban gardens. The following article from Science Daily.com addresses some of these concerns about lead levels in urban soils and prevention.

How lead gets into urban vegetable gardens

Detangling the Farm Bill (from the urban ag experts at Lettuce Link)

Editor’s Note: The urban agriculture experts at Solid Ground’s Lettuce Link program are detangling the federal Farm Bill in a series of posts. We are reposting Amelia Swinton’s post here to help get the word out.

 Since you’ve wound your way to Lettuce Link’s corner of the blogosphere, it’s safe to say that you have a stake in how we interact with food in this country. Maybe you’re fed up with high prices at farmers markets, alarmed by skyrocketing rates of diabetes, or just totally grossed out by what kids eat in their school cafeterias. Regardless of your motives, we probably all agree that many of our food policies have broken.

Workers on a farm.

Sustainable farming. Photo courtesy of Grow Food (c) 2005 (see link at bottom)

Over the next few months, this series will set out to situate our frustrations in specific policies, budgets, and farms so that we can understand why dinner tables look like they do. Cause eating has become political, and the health equity of our edible landscape will be determined by how we choose to consume it.

So! We’ve got our work cut out for us. The star of this series is a web of legislation called the Farm Bill that determines the funding and  policies for food and agriculture in the United States.  Rolling in at nearly 1,300 pages of dense legal jargon, our aim here is to pick (pieces of) it apart so that we can put them back together in a healthier, more equitable, and tastier way.
This is the first post of our Farm Bill series, which will be oriented around the following questions (& any others you suggest!):
  1. What did the Farm Bill originally aim to do? What does it do now?
  2. How does the bill influence spending and policies?
  3. Who does the bill affect?
  4. What type of agriculture does the bill promote?
  5. How does the bill affect our nation’s schools: nutrition education, fitness initiatives, lunch offerings, and garden projects?
  6. Can we discuss the language of food, especially terms like “organic”, “sustainable”, “agribusiness”, “obesity”, “food deserts”, “commodities”, and “eating well”?
    So that we can eventually sink our teeth into a much juicier question:
  7. How can we reform the bill to support a food system that is just, affordable & nourishing, from seed to table?
We hope that this series helps cut up the formidable Farm Bill into pieces that we can actually chew. Anyone who’s ever heard Sue McGann’s epic introduction to Marra Farm has learned that the interconnections between agriculture, food, health, immigration, and foreign aid are shocking.
So, keep voting with that fork, keep recognizing the political charge of each bite. Things taste a whole lot better that way.
We’ll update you with meeting information for the Community Alliance for Global Justice’s Farm Bill Action meetings. Until then, you can investigate their wealth of online resources at http://www.seattleglobaljustice.org/food-justice/farm-bill/ .

Photo courtesy of Grow Food (c) 2005.

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