Finding Solutions to Food Insecurity in Portland

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Students in the PLACE program have made a change in outer southeast Portland

From the Summer 2012 Caller

By George Zaninovich

At Catlin Gabel, we encourage students to use their education to influence the world around them, but how often do they actually witness their work come to fruition as tangible community improvement? In the spring of 2010, students in the school’s PLACE (Planning and Leadership Across City Environments) urban studies program worked alongside Portland State University graduate students for nonprofit Zenger Farm and the city’s Bureau of Environmental Services to improve food insecurity issues in outer southeast Portland. Two years later, their work is being implemented.
PLACE students were part of a team assigned to create a site design for four acres of grassland near SE 117th and Foster acquired in 2010 by the Friends of Zenger Farm. At that time, it was a field where neighbors walked their dogs and the homeless took refuge under the bushes. The Catlin Gabel students sought to get the local youth perspective on food security and future uses of the lot, which they achieved by implementing surveys and focus groups, and leading public meetings.
According to the USDA, “Food insecurity is strongly associated with household income. It is, by definition, a condition that arises from a lack of enough income and other resources for food.“ For the first time ever, the Oregon Food Bank Network distributed more than 1 million emergency food boxes in one year, with 33 percent of recipients being children. The PLACE students found that seven percent of the survey respondents in the neighborhoods they studied never have enough food.
“The Zenger project humanized school work,” says Lizzie Medford ’12, one of the project leaders. “It was so powerful to meet and talk with children and then later see on their survey responses that they weren’t getting enough food—especially after hearing on the news and during assemblies about how many people in Portland aren’t getting enough to eat.”
Our students learned that youth in the Zenger Farm neighborhood not only wanted to eat more healthy food in greater quantities, but they also showed a strong preference for learning how to grow and preserve their own food. As a result, the PLACE group wrote a plan called “3 Ps: Produce, Prepare, and Preserve Food” that included recommendations to help Zenger use the site to reduce food insecurity in the neighborhood. The students created a design for the four acres and presented their recommendations to community members at PSU.
“It was encouraging to see how excited the neighborhood youth were to grow their own food and take a stand about healthy eating,” says Lizzie. “The kids knew the value of growing their food but just didn’t have the resources to live out their desires of self-sufficiency.”
Work on the site began last year. Our students visited and were pleased to see that many of their recommendations had come to fruition. Thanks to the additional field space, Zenger Farm has launched one of the first community supported agriculture programs in Oregon that accepts food stamps, and has provided community garden plots in a neighborhood that sorely needs them.
“I hadn’t gotten this involved in making a difference about food insecurity ever before,” says Lizzie. “This project gave me perspective on food production and how to feed a hungry world through empowerment and education.”
George Zaninovich has headed up Catlin Gabel’s PLACE program since 2009. He also teaches freshman history, an urban studies course for the Global Online Academy, and a project-based public health course in collaboration with the science department.
Thanks to Lizzie Medford ’12 for her contributions to this article.