Extension Program Sows Food Security

By Mitch Lies, Growing Editor

Six years ago, with her daughter battling cancer, Master Gardener Sophie Grow of Philomath, found gardening to be therapeutic.

“It was a way for me to process and destress,” Grow said. “It was a form of therapy for me to garden. And not only did it help me cope, but it also helped me feed my family, and I thought, man that felt so good. I need to teach other people how to do that.

“I wanted to show families that thought they couldn’t do it, that they could,” Grow said.

Grow’s daughter, Grace, today is a healthy cancer survivor, and Grow is doing what she set out to do six years ago: Through the Linn Benton Seed to Supper program, Grow is teaching others how to garden and how to use their garden’s bounty in meals.

The program, a partnership between the Oregon State University Extension Service and the Oregon Food Bank, increases food security of low-income residents by providing education and support that empowers participants to grow their own fruits and vegetables.

Grow said her participation in Seed to Supper has been as rewarding as she initially conceived.

“I love to see families come back and say, ‘Oh, we’re on our second garden, and we’re doubling the size. The children are really excited to eat zucchini straight out of the garden, and they are picking vegetables, and they are not whining, like I thought they would, and they are not destroying the garden. They are actually caring for it, and it is a family experience,’” Grow said.

The Seed to Supper program has emerged as a valuable tool for providing low-income families access to healthy meals within a state that consistently ranks as one of the top-five in the U.S. for persistent hunger, said Brooke Edmunds, Extension community horticulturist for Benton, Linn and Lane counties.

According to recent reports, emergency food pantries across Benton and Linn counties have provided assistance to a record number of people in the past year, Edmunds said. She added that one out of every five families in the two-county area depends on emergency food pantry assistance at least once a year.

The Seed to Supper program includes six two-hour sessions in both English and Spanish at no cost to participants. The sessions are taught by trained volunteer garden educators, and cover topics such as planning a garden, planting the garden, caring for it and harvesting its bounty.

“We try to teach them the U.S.D.A. (Healthy Eating) Plate,” Grow said. “Here is what we need in terms of these vegetables and fruit, and here is what we can grow here.”

Grow said the biggest concern she hears from participants is “fear of having a black thumb.”

“They’ll ask a lot of questions about that, such as what do I need to do to get this plant to not die,” Grow said. “We explain to them, first of all, it’s okay if something dies in your garden. It is okay to fail, and you should keep trying to push past that.

“Gardening can be pretty intimidating,” Grow said. “If you haven’t been taught as a child, it can seem like a large task to take on. And people have busy lives.

“We give them the basics, what they need to get a good start,” she said. “Then we give them some seeds, and we give them some starts, and we say, ‘Call us. Email us. Come to our follow-up workshops. We want to help you if you have struggles during the growing season.’ So they feel supported and know that if they do have a problem, they can call Master Gardeners and bring in a sample, or show them a picture, and get help.”

This past year, through funding provided by a Hoecker Innovation Grant, the program also included hands-on-cooking and food-preservation classes.

Also in 2016, the program partnered with Strengthening Rural Families, a Benton County program, to offer youth gardening activities during two Seed to Supper classes. Called Kids Grow, the youth education program allowed families to strengthen communication and bond around a shared learning experience, Edmunds said.

Overall, the Seed to Supper program reached approximately 200 families in the past three years, Edmunds said, with encouraging results. A 2015 survey of participants found that 92 percent of respondents had a reduced food bill, and 80 percent reported an increased consumption of vegetables.

Going forward, Grow has high hopes for Seed to Supper.

“I want to normalize growing food,” she said. “I want it to be like another part of your house, like your kitchen. And if you know what you are doing in your kitchen, you feel pretty good about teaching your kids.

“So I want to teach parents to do that in their garden,” Grow said, “so we can have a new generation of kids growing up knowing where their life source is coming from.”

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