“Village Gardens saved my life,” Helen Nash exclaimed at the nonprofit’s 10th anniversary celebration last Saturday in the St. Johns neighborhood of Portland. What started off as a simple community garden has grown to affect countless people like Helen with a youth-run organic farm, kids garden programs, a livestock committee, community health workshops, and a healthy corner store.
One of the most notable projects, Food Works, uses an urban farm to teach young adults from ages 14-21 about farming, business, community, and themselves. The youth operate a 2.5-acre certified organic farm on Sauvie Island where they grow over 40 different types of vegetables. In this past year alone, they produced 12,919 pounds of food. They sold their produce at the Village Market, New Seasons, the St. Johns Farmers Market, and the Portland State University Farmers Market, bringing in a total of $14,000.
While those statistics are impressive, they don’t account for the immeasurable impact this program has on its young participants and their community. The Food Works youth tirelessly give their time, energy, and carefully cultivated produce to their neighbors. They package oats, beans, and rice at the Oregon Food Bank, volunteer at the community gardens, and pass out fresh vegetables (for free!) every Thursday.
The participants learn many job skills, including time management, communication, and leadership. In fact, I watched firsthand as the Food Works youth gained public-speaking experience during their presentation at the 10th anniversary celebration of Village Gardens. These young adults also learn a great deal about nutrition. They learn how to grow fresh vegetables and how to cook them, and in turn, they share these healthy habits with their families and friends, creating a strong, healthy community.
The newest installment of the Village Gardens program—the Village Market—offers a consistent outlet for Food Works produce. The market is a “healthy corner store project” that aims to bring fresh produce to the New Columbia neighborhood of North Portland where healthy food is rather inaccessible to its diverse residents.
Instead of selling chips, soda, alcohol, and tobacco, the Village Market is a convenient, affordable corner store that offers meats, produce, dairy, and bread. The store also includes a small deli and selection of grab-and-go foods that provide a healthy alternative to fast food meals. The Village Market makes the most convenient option also the healthiest—it’s brilliant!
In addition to cultivating physical health, the Village Market also strengthens the health of the New Columbia, Tamaracks, and St. Johns Woods communities. The store is completely run by residents of these neighborhoods, and the staff boasts some of the friendliest people around.
I am fortunate enough to live three short blocks from the market, and I can personally attest to this claim. Often, I find myself buying one or two items at a time to ensure that my visits to the store will be frequent. I also make it a point to purchase my bus tickets at the Village Market, even when my wallet is stuffed with one-dollar bills. These decisions all come down to one thing: the people. Sure, affordable, fresh food is enough to bring a smile to my face, but it’s the people who work here that keep me smiling even after I walk out the door.
Village Gardens has done amazing work over the past ten years, from Food Works to the Village Market and beyond. Helen Nash explained, “It’s not just a garden,” and as I watched community members talk about foods they’ve grown, meals they’ve shared, and friendships they’ve formed, I began to understand what she meant. It’s not just a garden–it’s a family.
Portland Fall Food Warrior