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Learning Gardens: Helping those in need to dig out of hunger

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From The Organic Report, Fall 2011
By Jennifer Rose

Tackling widespread hunger is no easy feat. Providing better access to food is only part of the solution. People also need to understand how to make use of the food they receive, and ideally, how to provide food for themselves.

The Oregon Food Bank (OFB) understands this well, which is why it built two “Learning Gardens” in the Portland metro area. Oregon Food Bank Learning GardensAccording to Alison Abbors, OFB’s Learning Gardens Coordinator, the gardens are an integral part of OFB’s educational programming, addressing the root causes of hunger by teaching “skills for self-sufficiency.” Specifically, Abbors says, the gardens “provide volunteers and program participants with hands-on service learning opportunities that empower them with the skills to grow their own food.”

Although they are not certified, OFB’s Learning Gardens are managed organically for two key reasons. First is the safety and protection of those who work in them. As Abbors notes, “ We can say with confidence to a parent of young children or to a cancer survivor that volunteering with us will not expose them to harmful chemicals.” Secondly, managing the gardens organically means that OFB can “assure its partner agencies that their clients will receive “the freshest, most healthful food possible.”

The Learning Gardens have done much to help address hunger problems in and around Portland. In addition to producing an average of 10,000 pounds of fresh, organic produce per year for OFB’s four branches and 16 independent regional food banks, they have brought together 1,038 garden volunteers through OFB’s Dig In! program, which, Abbors explains, “gives community members a chance to help fight hunger by working together to grow wholesome, organic food for distribution to hunger-relief agencies in Multnomah and Washington counties.”

 The gardens have also played a key role in OFB’s Seed to Supper program, which offers a free series of gardening workshops to low-income groups in the Metro area. To date, 942 adult participants and 16 partner agencies have participated in that program. Additionally, the gardens have served 209 at-risk youth through OFB’s Cultivating Community program (now known as the Cooking from the Garden program), which is designed to “bring fresh produce from field to fork while teaching at-risk teens basic gardening, nutrition, and kitchen skills.”