Q&A: Community Gardening Helps a Portland, Oregon, Neighborhood—and its Families—Grow

A garden full of tomatoes ripening.

This story is first in a two-part series about the Village Gardens project in Portland, Oregon.

Finding healthy food in the St. Johns Woods community of Portland, Oregon, used to be a difficult task—particularly for low-income residents who got around on foot or stretched their dollars at corner stores. To improve community members’ access to fresh produce and encourage positive change in the neighborhood, St. Johns Woods’ leaders approached Janus Youth Programs in 2001 and pitched the idea of starting a community garden.

Janus had started out as a residential program for homeless and substance-addicted youth. The organization saw the garden as a seed of change—a chance to address communitywide issues that limit young people’s ability to thrive. The resulting project, Village Gardens, has become more than a place where fruits and vegetables grow. The initiative provides tools and expertise to gardeners of all ages, and includes a market where neighbors can pick up healthy prepared foods and swap family recipes.

Village Gardens Program Director Amber Baker spoke with us about community engagement, youth leadership development and the positive impact of gardening.

NCFY: Can you talk about the community empowerment approach behind Village Gardens?

Baker: For those of us who don’t sleep in the community every night, we know that those who are most affected by the project should be the ones leading it. All of the work that we have taken on, all of our project priorities, have really been defined by members of the community. That, in and of itself, is the main goal of [Village Gardens]—community empowerment and community building—and we’ve found that food is a really good tool for doing that.  

NCFY: Food Works was created as a youth leadership program for young people ages 14 to 18, and some teens can earn school credit for participating. How can gardening translate to leadership or academic success?

Baker: What we see with the Food Works program is that we’re really helping young people build confidence. We really take our young people seriously and ask them to make decisions, and then we support those decisions. That helps young people learn that they have something to say and that they have a role to play in the world and that they are valued by adults.

In terms of healthy food, there’s a lot of research around nutrition and its impact on young people’s ability to focus and work in the school environment. But we’re also addressing food issues in a community that really does struggle with hunger and food insecurity. Helping households to meet some basic needs through income and food support really helps them to focus on other parts of their lives, not just surviving.  

NCFY: Have you seen any benefits working with children, teens and adults simultaneously?

Baker: Intergenerational connection has been a huge strength and a huge value at Village Gardens. Our teenagers help support the younger children by gardening with them and mentoring them. Then, they become known as safe, approachable teenagers in the community. We’ve also heard adults from the neighborhood say, ”We can recognize who the Food Works youth are in our community. They address us; they’re friendly and approachable.” On the flipside, our young people have said it’s really important for them to be able to identify who are the safe adults in the neighborhood beyond their own households.

One of our Food Works crew leaders, she’s been involved in our programming since she was probably three. Her mother is now part of our program and is doing a lot of health promotion work as a community health worker. So it’s been great to see that intergenerational connecting broadly, but also within families. I think it inspires both age groups to see the other really involved.

View a slideshow about the Food Works Summer Crew.

Listen to a NCFY podcast about another youth gardening program, in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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