The feeling of mud squishing between my toes as I sow organic fertilizer on a newly plowed space. The smell and stain of a tomato vine lingering on my fingers hours after returning home. The taste of a perfect Oregon strawberry. The satisfaction of clearing an area of weeds. The intense joy of offering life-giving water to thirsty fruit trees. The sounds of laughter from those working the land together, taking a break to share a meal. Watching the miracle of a seed peeking out of the ground and growing into sustenance for my body and my community.
These impressions flow through me as I reflect on my last two years working in the community garden at George Fox University. I am incredibly grateful for the chance to grow some of my own food with a group of people, sharing our knowledge and our lives as we weed, shovel, pick and savor. But I recognize that community gardens, community supported agriculture endeavors (CSAs) and the organic food movement in general contains one huge flaw: it is mainly only available to those who can afford the luxury of healthy food. I’m not going to spend the time here to discuss the myriad problems of large scale farming, monocropping, pesticides and processed foods, but it is so aggravating to me that the cheapest food is filled with fats and sugars that contribute to obesity, type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol and heart disease, among other things.
According to the 2012 USDA Household Food Security report, 14.5% of the people in the United States struggle with hunger, unable to purchase enough food in a country with excessive amounts of discarded food. When I think about the big picture, the huge problem of a food system based on farm subsidies, corporate bottom lines and competition for market shares, and what this means for individual hungry people, I easily get discouraged. On today’s “Think Out Loud” on Oregon Public Broadcasting I learned that nearly 60% of Western Oregon University students can be labeled “food insecure,” according to a recent study conducted by a faculty member there and published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.
What I can do, however, is focus here on the positive things that are going on in my own community, and participate in those. Last year I took on leadership of the community garden at George Fox University. This year we’re working to expand the community garden to include not just the university community, but also those within the town of Newberg who desire access to healthy, organic produce and vibrant community. I am leading a group of student interns in finding food-insecure individuals and families who want to join the community garden. I will coordinate the interns as we handle all the details regarding when to plant, finding local businesses to donate supplies, garnering enthusiasm from within the George Fox community, organizing work days, and all the other details that go into running such a project.
In preparation for this work, I wanted to educate myself about the options available to those in Newberg who do not have access to enough food. I particularly wanted to find out about programs and organizations that provide access to healthy food and the ability to learn to grow food for oneself. My hope is that I can learn from others doing similar work, partner with them, and discern what services our community garden can provide to meet the greatest food needs in our community.
I first wanted to talk about the most obvious form of food access: government assistance in the form of SNAP benefits (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and WIC (Women, Infants & Children). I was surprised to find that even this aid is difficult to come by for Newberg residents: there is no longer a Department of Human Services office in Newberg, so one has to travel 14 miles to McMinnville to receive assistance within Yamhill County. SNAP benefits will buy any kind of grocery store food (excluding prepared deli items and alcohol), so one could purchase healthful food, including organic produce. Local supermarkets have fairly good organic food sections, but the prices are rather steep. To find out if you qualify for SNAP benefits, you can check out this benefits estimator.
Stay tuned for discussion of local CSAs, food banks and other community gardens in the coming days, followed by posts about what we are doing to get ready for this growing season.
 Researchers at the University of Arizona, Tucson, estimate in a 2005 study that 40-50% of food harvested in the United States is never eaten. About 12% remains in the fields after saleable food is harvested, and the other 30-40% is lost at each level of the supply chain.
Jones, Timothy W. 2005. “THE CORNER ON FOOD LOSS.” Biocycle 46, no. 7: 25. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost.
Jones, Timothy W. 2005. “FOOD LOSS ON THE FARM.” Biocycle 46, no. 9: 44-46. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed February 14, 2014).