This past Saturday, more than twenty volunteers gathered at the Rainier Beach Urban Farm to help construct gardens for Rainier Valley's low-income population. Started in 2010, the Just Garden Project, a program run by Seattle Tilth, has built more than 100 gardens for low-income households throughout King County – providing nutritious food for more than 2,000 people. The Just Garden Project subsidizes the construction of gardens for low-income residents at the cost of $25 for one raised garden bed, which includes construction, seeds, a growing guide, and free gardening classes – a small price to pay for a tool that will allow families to sustainably feed themselves over a long period of time.
Each month, garden beds are built in a different Seattle neighborhood in need. This past weekend in Rainier Beach, garden beds were constructed in the yards of three low-income housing complexes. Among them was Columbia Place, a senior housing project run by the Seattle Housing Authority. Over the course of a few hours, a soulless and empty back yard was given a spark of potential with the construction of two garden beds. The residents of the apartment complex were delighted by their construction and eager to start gardening.
Urban agriculture is a way of creating an inviting community space in formerly neglected and avoided common areas. The Just Garden Program Manager, Stephanie Seliga, noted how after finishing the building of a rooftop garden at a senior home, residents told her how this formerly unused and bland space was transformed into a lively place that everyone, not just those maintaining the gardens, would come and use.
However, conducting urban agriculture in the Rainier Valley presents its own neighborhood specific obstacles. The 98118 zip code is one of the most diverse zip codes in the country with the most number of languages spoken of anywhere in the United States. Such diversity has created problems in outreach efforts to assess and engage the needs of many of the neighborhood's non-Anglophone immigrant populations. Rainier Valley furthermore has a high low-income population and, according to Seliga, is one of the last places in Seattle "where people who aren't making a six-figure income can still kind of make it."
A lack of time, money, education and space are the major obstacles to gardening in the area. While the Just Garden Project provides the education and the money, the major obstacle facing low-income residents in Rainier Valley is time. As Seliga points out, "If you are on food stamps, if you need to go to the food bank, it takes time to do those things and it is almost a full-time job to get your daily needs met."
Indeed, a large proportion of Rainier Valley's residents are on food stamps, overwhelming the local food bank that can't keep up with the ever-growing need of the community. The Just Garden Project and the Rainier Beach Urban Farm provide a means to meet such demand. As Seliga notes, "people can come and volunteer at the farm, they can take home food. We have a good food bag program that runs out of here. It's $5 a week, a mini CSA of vegetables that you might have never tried before. We also have a farm stand … [which] helps make this produce accessible to the people right in this neighborhood."
In spite of obstacles, the Just Garden Project has had a huge impact since its creation three years ago. One 4x8 foot raised bed allows a family to grow up to $200 worth of food each growing season. This number is multiplied with the more raised beds a family receives and has an exponential effect on the community. As Seliga remarks, "85-90% of our gardeners give food away to people outside of their homes. They have more than enough fruits and vegetables for their family and they have enough to give to other people. It's made a huge difference in people's lives."
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Written by Alyssa Campbell