The trip to bountiful

The food-justice movement brings fresh food to the people

March 12, 2007

On the site of the former Columbia Villa public-housing project in Portland, Oregon, sits a new neighborhood named New Columbia. An experiment in mixed-income housing, with government-subsidized apartments constructed alongside market-rate and luxury homes, New Columbia also has a new elementary school, a soon-to-be-refurbished community center, and 36 plots of food, herbs, and flowers called the Seeds of Harmony Garden.

Tera Couchman, 30, the associate director of the garden program, refers to herself as an “invited staff member.” Couchman grew up in poverty in northern Idaho, but she never went hungry because her mother raised goats, rabbits, and produce on the three acres they owned. Her childhood, she says, taught her the power inherent in being able to grow her own food.

Drawing on that experience, Couchman believes her main job at New Columbia is to empower low-income residents, using the Seeds of Harmony Garden to help them build on skills they already have and develop new ones as they work toward self-sufficiency.

“My commitment to the project is that this is theirs. It’s their community, their neighborhood,” Couchman says. “It’s clear to me that we could have a great-looking garden with volunteers from all over the city, but that wouldn’t belong to the community.”

Seeds of Harmony is a garden with a mission. It’s also a garden with roots and tendrils: All across the country, similar gardens are being planted and their produce distributed in an effort to change the way that food gets from soil to table.

Over the last 20 years, Americans — especially low-income and minority populations — have grown fatter; two-thirds of American adults are now considered overweight or obese. Nationwide, the cheapest and most accessible foods are also the most highly processed and least nutritious. And because many low-income American neighborhoods lack grocery stores, residents rely on corner markets, where produce is often scarce and of poor quality.

Turning the soil at Seeds of Harmony. Standing on the right are garden volunteers Chrysanthius Lathan and Pascal Ananouko.

In the face of these challenges, individuals and organizations have begun to take back the fields. From installing backyard vegetable gardens to establishing full-scale urban farms, these people are recognizing that fresh, healthful foods should be readily available to those at all income levels, not just the well-to-do.

Building community and self-sufficiency

In addition to providing a measure of food security for its gardeners, Seeds of Harmony builds relationships, bringing together residents of diverse backgrounds and ethnicities, including many recent immigrants from around the globe. The program also provides economic opportunities and job training, by employing New Columbia residents as garden advocates and by hiring teenagers through the related Food Works program to grow and sell salad greens in the summer months.

Garden advocate Chrysanthius Lathan, 27, lived in the old Columbia Villa for four years before it was razed and was one of the first to move back to New Columbia. A mother of three and a student at Portland State University, Lathan learned how to grow vegetables from her own mom. “She had gardens since I was a kid, but I didn’t know much about harvesting, because my mom never let me pick anything,” she jokes.

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Lathan began working at Seeds of Harmony in the spring of 2006, the garden’s first growing season. Although she was hired to work 20 hours a month, she put in nearly twice that many hours during the spring and summer months. Her duties included going door-to-door in the neighborhood to recruit people to sign up for the free plots; she also helped gardeners plan, plant, and celebrate at the end of the season. Her work let up after the fall harvest, but Lathan plans to learn more about winter gardening so that, in the future, she and others can garden year-round.

By summertime, some of the Seeds of Harmony plots had become weedy and neglected. So Lathan worked with residents to develop rules for the garden. The rules are few and simple: Gardeners sign a contract agreeing to take care of their plot to the best of their abilities; to ask for help if they need it; to weed and water; and to keep their kids from running in other people’s plots.

Last summer Lathan’s own kids — aged four, five, and eight — were always in the garden with her, not only helping her but volunteering to help others. “They were really watching and paying attention,” she says.

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