By Fiona Loomis
Having access to fresh produce is something that seems like a given to many of us. For those of us living in Portland, Oregon, we know it as a place of bounty and convenience. We have supermarkets nearby and transportation to get us there quickly. However, many people in Oregon face food insecurity; in this article we will explore what food insecurity is, what it looks like for Portlanders and what one organization in the city is doing to counteract it.
What Does “Food Insecurity” Mean?
Food insecurity, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), is “a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life.” (2022)
A healthy diet, according to the USDA, is composed of nutrient-dense foods that are varied and eaten in reasonable portions. Along with other food types, they emphasize that fruits and vegetables are central for a healthy diet, which limits the risk of obesity, type-2 diabetes, osteoporosis and some cancers.
Experiencing food insecurity is caused by a lack of access to food. Seems logical, but let’s explore the meaning of “food access.” First, for a household to have access to food, there needs to be grocery stores in close proximity to that household, which are convenient to get to. Second, the food sold in these grocery stores needs to meet the criteria for a healthy diet. This means that there needs to be fresh fruits and vegetables available at that outlet. Third, the grocery store needs to be affordable for the households that shop there.
Food Insecurity in Oregon
Oregon State University conducted research in 2020 showing that, due to the pandemic, the percentage of food insecure people in Oregon had increased 35% since 2018, going from 11.9% to 16.1% of the population. That is a total of 675,250 people being food insecure statewide.
It was shown that Black, Native American and Hispanic households were more likely to be suffering from food insecurity than white households. There is also a correlation between having low income and lack of food access. Other indicators point to lower levels of formal education and being a renter rather than a homeowner, both of which are connected to having a lower income. All of these factors add to the likelihood of someone experiencing food insecurity.
There are no readily available statistics that cover food insecurity in the Portland metro area as a whole, but there are isolated statistics for particular neighborhoods. The USDA deemed that six neighborhoods in Portland are “food deserts,” meaning that they lack sources of fruits and vegetables within one mile of a shopper’s household (a criteria applied specifically to the urban context). Those neighborhoods are Argay, Pleasant Valley, Centennial, Wilkes and Powellhurst-Gilbert (PHG). I had the honor of speaking to Rob Cato, co-executive director of the non-profit urban farm and education center, Friends of Zenger Farm, or Zenger Farm for short, located in the PHG neighborhood. Rob is tackling the complexity of food insecurity in that neighborhood.
Zenger Farm is located in Portland’s PHG neighborhood. According to the USDA’s assessment, as well as a household survey, those living in PHG express that they are facing food insecurity. PHG’s percentage of households experiencing limited access to healthy food is 17%, which is higher than the Multnomah County level of 11.9%.
As a result of this data, and the experience of people living in PHG, Zenger Farm is working to address the needs of its own neighborhood. The Farm is addressing this issue at three levels: 1) making food more affordable, 2) increasing education about how food is grown and how to prepare it, and 3) focusing their educational activities on historically marginalized Black, Indigenous and communities of color. We will go into more detail regarding these initiatives below.
1) Affordability of food produce at Zenger Farm
The produce grown by Zenger Farm is directly available to residents in the neighborhood through the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model. The fruits and vegetables harvested are sold as weekly shares of fruits and vegetables that can be picked up at the Farm. The contents of the shares, or boxes, vary according to availability, seasonality, weather and what the Farm has chosen to produce during that season. This form of agriculture guarantees farmers an income because the clients buy their subscription to the weekly CSA shares in advance for the whole season, or the whole year. And, the Farm is located directly within the neighborhood, so potential CSA customers are abundant.
However, the question of economic accessibility, or affordability, had been a barrier for neighborhood households to purchase the food at Zenger Farm. According to Rob Cato, “The Farm used to be more of a destination.” People would come from outside the neighborhood to purchase food and visit. However, since 2014, “[the Zenger team] did some soul-searching and decided to focus all of our efforts on the local community,” states Cato. Indeed, households within the community were not purchasing produce or participating in the many educational activities that Zenger Farm offers. “We made all of our activities’ prices be on a sliding scale,” which both encourages people who may not have been able to afford coming to the Farm to do so, and for people to give more if they can afford it. The Farm’s produce can also be purchased using Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, which is a government-funded program that supplies low-income households with funds to purchase food.
Furthermore, Zenger Farm also supplies free produce at local health clinics for patients receiving prescriptions for fruits and vegetables. The fruit and vegetable prescription program, “sometimes called VeggiesRX,” as Cato clarifies, is a nationwide experimental program that allows doctors to prescribe and provide funds for produce to food insecure patients. Local health clinics in the PHG neighborhood use this approach, and the prescribed produce is provided for free by Zenger farm and five other local producers. This collaboration, called Partnerships for Health, allows people to get the produce from the Farm at no cost.
On top of their work to make produce more affordable, Zenger Farm is working to increase food and agriculture education because, according to Cato, not knowing about certain vegetables and how to prepare them is a leading cause of food insecurity in the PHG neighborhood.
2) Increasing education about food in the neighborhood
Zenger Farm is not only a functioning urban farm, but also an educational center. One cause of food insecurity that has been observed by the Farm is a lack of education about what different fruits and vegetables are and how to prepare them. Cato exemplifies this point by stating, “People want to buy the food their families are going to eat … if you have limited resources, you are not going to buy kale if your family doesn’t like kale … maybe the family doesn’t know about kale, or maybe they don’t know the culturally-specific ways to prepare it.”
To increase food and agricultural education, Zenger Farm has multiple programs for people living in the PHG neighborhood.
The Farm offers programs for neighborhood children to visit, tend to small garden plots, and learn about the ecology of the property and about agricultural techniques — the children also learn how to cook! During “Open Farm Days,” which occur on a weekly basis in the spring and summer months, anyone is welcome for a tour. Lunch is prepared with harvested ingredients and visitors are welcome to attend agricultural-themed workshops, such as “seed saving” or “compost making.” All of these programs are offered at a sliding scale and focus on serving residents of the neighborhood.
The Farm also runs two professional training programs. One is the Beginning Farmer Apprenticeship that works with aspiring farmers on tending land and farm business management. The second program is the Community Chef Fellowship, which provides kitchen space and business training to women of color working to start their own culinary enterprises. These programs have supported aspiring farmers and chefs to go on and start their own businesses, while bringing healthy, fresh and culturally-specific foods to their own neighborhood.
Zenger’s focus on increasing food and agricultural education, as well as making their activities more affordable, is one part of their mission. However, tackling education and income levels also means addressing the fact that having a low income and less education about food is often correlated with experiencing systemic racism and oppression in the United States. On top of their efforts to address affordability and education, Zenger Farm knows that racial equity is part of the solution to addressing food insecurity, and they center the inclusion of Black, Indigenous and People of Color in all of their work.
3) Inclusion of Black, Indigenous and Communities of Color
Zenger Farm’s mission to promote food security ensures that everyone has the same chance and access to becoming food secure. The Farm works to be an inclusive space for everyone, and encourages Black, Indigenous and People of Color to take part and contribute in all of their offerings. Furthermore, certain programs are tailored specifically for BIPOC community empowerment.
Their Beginning Farmer Apprenticeship focuses on providing resources for young aspiring farmers of color, which has led to multiple graduates starting their own farms. Their Community Chefs Fellowship program is exclusively for women of color to showcase their culinary talents and provides training and resources in business management. Furthermore, the Farm acknowledges that they are on Indigenous land, and they work to recreate links between the Farm and local Tribal communities. The Farm partners with Wisdom of the Elders, an organization that works to record, preserve and share Native American wisdom. Wisdom of the Elders operates plots of land on Zenger Farm’s property to grow Indigenous native plants and share the knowledge linked to those species.
Zenger Farm’s partnerships to increase justice, equity, diversity and inclusion in their activities is an ongoing process and is central to their mission. The Farm is concretely tackling some of the main causes of food insecurity that occur in the Powellhurst-Gilbert neighborhood. They showcase how food insecurity can be addressed at the neighborhood level in an inclusive and racially equitable way. The ongoing efforts of the Farm have increased food access, while making PHG a livelier neighborhood in the process.
What is being tackled by the Farm in PHG is not an isolated phenomenon. Food insecurity is widespread in the United States, and has only increased due to COVID-19. It is hard to imagine that hunger could exist in a place like Portland, which is in the heart of one of the most productive agricultural regions in the country. However, thanks to people like Rob Cato and organizations like Zenger Farm, they are providing insight and innovative solutions to counteract it. The work that the Farm is doing is based on collaboration with their community and addresses the real problems that neighborhood residents face in accessing good food: unaffordability, lack of education and exclusion. They provide a hopeful example of how these complex causes of food insecurity can be tackled at the local level, and hopefully will provide inspiration to other urban farms, education centers, health institutions and neighborhood residents to follow in their footsteps. Food security for all is a challenge we can work on solving together and is worth striving to achieve in our lifetimes.