Portland deals with food security
By Joel Preston Smith
The Department of Homeland Security’s lime green website recommends that each home-preparedness kit include a can opener. The agency, not well known for linking cause and effect, goes on to state that a can opener is used for food. And then, just to be sure you don’t put your eye out with it, or attempt to paddle it past the broken levees, the agency observes that your disaster preparedness kit should include a can opener if your kit contains canned food.
What the agency doesn’t recommend, but that we’re hearing more and more these days, is that your disaster kit should include a backyard garden. Or a rooftop garden. Or membership in a CSA—because the best way to prepare for a disaster is to ensure you’re not among the victims. If hunger in America could be termed a protracted disaster, which it surely is, the solution likely doesn’t lie in a kit stored under the kitchen sink. It’s in the land.
Kallibri Terre Sonnenblume of Sunroot Gardens says he once spent a lot of time wringing his hands over the prospect of a coming food crisis in the U.S., but no longer. He’s too busy gardening. As Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in August of 2005, Sonneblume, now 40, watched New Orleans implode, wondering how he’d feed himself should the food system collapse in his own backyard, in Portland.
The solution, for a man born on the 25th anniversary of D-Day, was to establish a beachhead. Less than a year after the levees failed in Louisiana, Sonneblume was blitzing a dozen small gardens inside the Portland city limits, all on other’s property, raising corn, beans and squash.
It’s a simple model—trade food for the privilege of turning someone else’s soil—but Sonneblume is the first to admit that it’s no long-term solution to either a short-lived crisis, or for America’s perpetual, and growing, hunger.
More than 25 million Americans are now dependent on food banks, according to Ross Fraser, spokesperson for the Chicago-based hunger-relief agency Feeding America. Demand for emergency food boxes is up an average of 30 percent over 2007-2008, the last period for which Feeding America, coordinating a national network of 206 food banks, has data.
Meanwhile, the Federal Emergency Management Agency stands ready with a stockpile of four million meals, warehoused at strategic locations throughout the U.S., should disaster strike. The U.S. Defense Logistics Agency, which supplies the vast majority of all food and material for America’s military, “is poised and ready” to supply up to one million meals a day, while supplies last, according to Jonathan E. Mathews, deputy division chief for the agency.
While state and federal agencies plan for a potential disaster, hunger-relief agencies argue the disaster is now, it’s here, and its epicenter is America’s empty dinner table. “It’s a disaster,” says Fraser, “when so many people are standing in line for four hours for a bag of groceries.”
I can’t eat for miles and miles
It’s a disaster in Oregon, if you ask the Oregon Food Bank, which reports that five of 20 regional food banks in the state saw an increase of 25 percent or more in requests for food over the past year. To meet demand, the nonprofit sends semis as far as Fowler, Calif., 772 miles, to pick up surplus oranges, along with 390-mile runs to Ontario, Ore. to salvage onions and potatoes that would otherwise rot in the fields.
Communications director Jean Kempe-Ware says the agency chalked up 400,000 miles putting food in bellies instead of dumpsters in fiscal year 2007-2008. It wasn’t enough. Rachel Bristol, executive director, says the bank would have to net an additional one million pounds of food a month to feed every hungry Oregonian (the agency also provides emergency food boxes to residents of Clark County, Wash.).
According to the Oregon Department of Agriculture, agriculture accounts for 10 percent of the state’s employment, but 12.4 percent of the state’s residents are classified by the USDA as having “low food security.” The aching irony is deepened by the fact that, according to the department, 80 percent of the state’s agricultural products are shipped out of state, and 40 percent of the total are destined for overseas markets.
Where it all goes, we can’t say, but it’s not going into Oregonians. Jessica Chanay, program and communications director for the Oregon Hunger Relief Task Force, says 573,000 Oregonians now receive food stamps, up from 464,000 a year ago. Chanay notes that Oregon now ranks third in the nation in “very low food security,” which she describes as “dumpster diving, missing meals, and basically not knowing where your next meal is coming from.”
It’s no particular comfort to find we’re not alone, in living in a state that prides itself on agricultural prowess. Walker Satterwhite, director of the Mississippi Food Network, presides over 320 relief agencies in what the USDA terms the hungriest state in the nation, one that boasts 11 million cultivatable acres—an area twice the size of Connecticut. Walker daily finds himself confronted with the nagging fact that like Oregonians, he lives in a land that is dirt rich and food poor.
To feed what are now 107,000 hungry Mississippians a month, Satterwhite’s fleet of tractor trailers sometimes chalk up as many as 2,400 miles round trip on a desperation run to Los Angeles to salvage surplus canned meat or corn. Meanwhile, according to local hunger-relief agencies, demand for emergency food boxes is up 41 percent in the City of Angels.
The question that Sonneblume and other “food innovators” ask is, how do we get food off the asphalt, and onto the table? Putting more of it in the ground seems to be the most reasonable answer.
“It’s not really a political thing,” says Sonneblume, who raised his first garden at age six in Omaha, Neb. He dropped off the grid about two years ago, after abandoning a career in paper pushing that would have eventually propelled him all the way to “middle management.”
He rolls his eyes. “I’m just trying to feed myself. I had to ask myself why was I working in a glass box, doing the silk necktie thing, when I’ve always liked to play in the mud.”
His organization Sunroot Gardens, employs five full-time staff and roughly 24 volunteers, most of who work in exchange for food (Sunroot also supplies several CSA’s, and a few restaurants, with workers accomplishing most of the deliveries by bicycle).
“If we’re going to solve the food security problem, it’s going to take farmers like Kallibri, thinking creatively,” says Rodney Bender, garden programs manager for Growing Gardens, a Portland nonprofit that is reshaping the metro landscape along greener lines. The agency, founded in 1996, currently supports 175 families (up from about 90 families in 2007) enrolled in three-year-long intensive home-gardening programs, and already maintains a waiting list for would-be-gardeners for 2010. To qualify for Growing Gardens, a family must be listed under the WIC program, or be food-stamp recipients, or qualify for free-lunches at a local school.
“There’s been a tremendous increase in people asking general gardening questions,” Bender observes. “Partly it’s the economy, but I think people just want to get control back in their lives.”
To help low-income Portlanders reclaim their food future, Growing Gardens supplies free seeds, plants and tools, and backs up its investment by assigning a mentor to each family, to ensure each gardener-convert has a more-than-reasonable chance of success. Bender says Portlanders are again calling them Victory Gardens, harkening back to the national push for independent food production during WWII, to free up food and agricultural resources for U.S. troops fighting on two fronts and three continents.
The war has now moved to America, where government is again encouraging citizens to rediscover gardening, and re-vision a healthier, sated America. The results are mixed. In 2004, the Portland City Council teamed up with Portland State University’s Urban Planning Department to inventory “every square foot” of municipal property to define how much was lying fallow, 289 sites, and what it would take to get the land under cultivation, says Steve Cohen, with the city’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.
“What we found,” Cohen laments, “is that we’re not sitting on a wealth of pastureland. If people got the impression that there were acres and acres of land out there, just waiting for someone to plant tomatoes, they’d be wrong. We did the study two more times, and in the third Diggable City report, we concluded you can’t look to urban reserves to support food security.”
The city has since designated three properties—one of the north and south lawns of City Hall—as community gardens, and they’re inspirational, they’re functional, they’re heartfelt, but Cohen says it doesn’t really make a dent in the city’s effort to feed itself. He notes that the city is negotiating for two more community gardens, and that Mayor Sam Adams is hammering out an agreement, with the Portland Department of Transportation, to allow residents to grow gardens in fire strips—the narrow parcels of dirt and starved grass that lie between urban streets and sidewalks. Cohen says Portlanders still won’t be able to grow sweet corn in them (the fire department needs to be able to see the address of your burning house,) but the sidewalk strips are ripe for low-lying veggies.
Lack of land has inspired a generation of food innovators such as Marc Boucher-Colbert, director of Urban Agriculture Solutions, to recruit apartment dwellers into container-and-rooftop gardening. It’s also been the genesis of organizations such as My Backyard Farmer, which resurrects gardens from yards, giving landowners a stake in their own CSA.
Perhaps the most substantial, long-term investment in Oregon’s food security is being offered by Friends of Family Farmers, headquartered in Molalla, Ore. Billing itself as a grassroots effort to keep farms under the plow, rather than asphalt and concrete as farms are sold to developers, Friends is devoted to growing the next generation of farmers. According to the state Department of Agriculture, the average age of an Oregon farmer is 54.9 years, and the department expects 30-50 percent of the state’s 38,300 farms to change ownership in the next decade.
“We don’t want to see the land being brought into industrial hands,” explains Megan Fehrman, grassroots organizer for Friends. “Most of the land is in the hands of small farmers, and we’d like to keep it that way.”
The nonprofit recently launched a web resource, IFARM Oregon, to link young farmers with resources (land for sale, ag info, financial backing, partnerships, apprenticeship programs, etc.) they need in order to pioneer a career in farming.
While Portland’s food future might look more promising if the green-building movement incorporated more vertical and rooftop gardens, architect Brook Muller says you shouldn’t look for it anytime soon. Head of the University of Oregon’s new certificate program in ecological design for the Department of Architecture, Muller defines classical architects as people “who wear black clothes and smoke cigarettes and stare fondly at their creative products, and don’t seem to think much about their carbon footprint.”
If we’re going to do this in an urban area,” Cohen argues, “if we’re going to get land under cultivation, we have to look beyond land city owns. We have to look at schools, churches and private property.”
Which is what drives Sonneblume to pedal his way through Portland, hauling his food future behind him in a handmade tool trailer, metamorphosing yards to gardens. “It’s not a movement,” he says. “It’s not a political statement. I’m just making do with what’s in front of me,” he says.
The simple, straightforward belief that the solution lies not in government initiatives but in the hands of the citizenry is also what drove three northeast Portlanders to rip out half their rented lawn and plant it over in tomatoes, spinach, eggplant and spinach this May. It’s no coincidence that Margaret Pettygrove, Allie Hoffman and Megan Schaefer all work full time for organizations that promote food security. Hoffman, 23, is the events coordinator for the Oregon Food Bank, and plans to give any surplus from her denuded yard over to the relief agency.
“I don’t think we’re going to feed ourselves solely with front gardens, but it’s a start,” says Hoffman. “I ultimately think everyone wants food security, but to get it, they’re going to have take back control of their lives.”
•Friends of Family Famers and IFARM Oregon: www.friendsoffamilyfarmers.org/
•Sunroot Gardens: www.trashfactory.net/sunrootgardens/
•My Backyard Farmer: www.mybackyardfarmer.com/
•Growing Gardens: www.growing-gardens.org.
Joel Preston Smith is a Portland-based writer and photographer.