Neighbourhood to Nation: Portland Food Policy Conference Part 1

St Johns Woods – Growing Community Capacity for Leadership & Health

Community Food Security Coalition – Food Policy from Neighbourhood to Nation

Portland, Oregon

Photo Credit: Village Gardens

On the first day of the Community Food Security Coalition (CFSC) conference I participated in a field trip series called “Building Skills, Building Community: Urban Agriculture and Economic Development.” We visited three different community gardens, a youth run farm, and a new community run healthy food market. Over the week or so I will write about each of these stops, and my thoughts on how these models relate to the work that we’re doing on the North Shore.

First stop: St Johns Wood

St Johns Wood is a low-income housing development run by the Portland Housing Authority (PHA), and home to 124 families of diverse backgrounds. Historically community gardens have not been allowed on PHA land, but about seven years ago a community organization called Village Gardens began to change that.

Our guide, Kara, a first generation city-dweller from a family of subsistence farmers from Idaho was brought onto the St Johns Wood garden project in its infancy. As our bus passed through large swaths of industrial area,  she explained how she worked with the community to develop a vision for the garden and build bridges with the PHA to make the garden a reality. She started by asking residents, “If you could have anything [in the garden], what would it be?”

The Community’s Vision

A garden that was thought ‘doomed to fail’ by the PHA, has flourished over the years. In a neighbourhood plagued by vandalism and tagging, the garden has never been touched. Obviously this project came from the community and is highly respected and loved.  Three years into the project the PHA agreed to pay for water access –  a big step and sign that the organization was beginning to see the value in the garden. Four years in, the PHA made a small office space available, and five years in PHA worked with Village Gardens to support replicating the garden model in other developments.

The 7,000 square foot St. Johns Woods Garden Project enables 30 families living 200% below federal poverty guidelines to grow their own food by providing seeds, tools, fertile land, water, and technical support. Housing Authority of Portland property managers at St. Johns Woods credit the project with reducing vandalism and increasing collaborative problem solving among residents...read more.

Photo Credit: Village Gardens

Garden Leadership

The garden coordinators provided the leadership needed to make the St Johns Wood garden successful, and to share the model throughout the Portland area. The garden coordinator graciously welcomed us to St Johns Wood and shared her thoughts and thankfulness for the garden; with a degree in agriculture from her home country of Ethiopia, her food growing knowledge was an incredible asset to the community.

The garden has also leveraged other community members leadership to bring programs into the neighbourhood. Watson, with a university degree is sustainable development and agriculture, has been leading the Community Health Worker program. Community residents are trained by the Multnomah county Health Department to work in their community to promote nutrition, health, and connecting people to health services.  Village Gardens also developed a kids club program that runs out of the St Johns Wood garden. A young man in a bright blue Village Gardens t-shirt and a warm smile told us about his with work with the neighbourhood children growing a 1000sq feet of garden, learning about where food comes from, how to eat healthy, and living actively.

The gardens have proven to be a powerful tool in bringing together people, culture, and nutrition at St Johns Wood.

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