Volunteers working to build neighborhood community garden

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Holiday shopping has been sidelined for a while. This year, local community members are spending their days planting seeds to improve their community. Builders have gathered and garden boxes have been built around a local church to solve a dire food shortage in Vancouver’s Maplewood Neighborhood. In the coming weeks, volunteers will be filling recently installed raised bed boxes and continuing the process of covering the green grass with layers of cardboard and leaves so grass will decompose naturally over the winter and pathways can be chipped.

A problem in this neighborhood is “food insecurity.” Many of its working class families struggle to put healthy, fresh foods on the table. As a result, a disproportionate number of students at nearby schools qualify for free and reduced lunch programs, including 70 percent of students at Martin Luther King Elementary and 80 percent of students at Eleanor Roosevelt Elementary — the highest percentage of any schools in the district.

“This is a high poverty area. Families here have few options for buying healthy food that’s affordable, so I’d say we’re in a ‘food desert,’” Green Team Co-Leader of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Vancouver Kitty Hibbs said. “Fresh produce is not readily available at the Food Banks. Other community gardens in Vancouver charge a fee and are far away.” 

Home and rooftop gardens have been adopted nationwide as a way to solve these kinds of food shortages. However, many of these students and their families live in apartments without access to land where they can grow their own food. 

Until now. 

“We want to provide a space here where these families can grow their own organic produce, close to home and for free,” Hibbs said.

“Our Green Team felt that the time was right to work on a project that would impact both environmental and racial justice in our own community,” adds Grace Teigen, another Green Team co-leader at the church. “Our minister, Kathryn Bert, agreed and was strongly in support. As we explored community attitudes, it was clear the need has become greater than we could have imagined. Seeing it on the news is one thing but seeing it on the face of a child is very motivating!”  

The plan started coming together this October. It calls for two long rows of raised beds and a small shed for equipment inside a fenced area a little larger than a tennis court on the church’s property. It’s a big job, but it’s taking shape fast, thanks to a village of community support.

“We were researching community support when we called Sunrise O’Mahoney at Watershed Alliance for her thoughts,” said Teigen. “With her extensive experience and knowledge of Watershed Alliance’s resources, she encouraged us to apply for a grant. The mission of Watershed Alliance includes educating community members and giving them hands on opportunities to participate in protection of Southwest Washington’s natural legacy. That $2,000 and Parr Lumber’s generous discounts have paid for all the materials needed to create 25 sturdy, raised beds. Individual donations from UUCV congregants and GoFundMe covered the needed irrigation.”

“Never underestimate the power in forming community partnerships and supporting local small business. We could never have gotten this far so quickly without our partnerships with local nonprofits and business. We hired Scott Mathewson to install the garden’s watering system because he has a family in Vancouver. We need to help each other get through this pandemic,” reports Hibbs. 

That took care of the lumber and irrigation, but until recently project co-leaders Hibbs, Teigen and Gail Sears had struggled to find soil to fill all the planned garden beds that would be rich enough to produce high yield crops.

Fortunately, Hibbs tapped into the area’s burgeoning soil industry. She attended the virtual October Clark County Green Business meeting and described their community garden project to the group. Waste Connection’s environmental educator Ellen Ives connected her with Dirt Hugger, a compost facility out of Dallesport that turns Clark County food waste from businesses, city residents and schools into rich organic soil.

“Clark County schools have been sorting food waste to be composted for years now. Through Waste Connections and Clark County Green Schools we educate students and staff so that they understand the environmental benefit of composting food scraps. Composting preserves nutrients and reduces landfill greenhouse gases that cause climate change,” said Ives. “The compost and soil mixtures Dirt Hugger produces are organic and of high quality. The people there are very community oriented and they were happy to donate their soil mix for a community garden that will benefit people in need.”

“When Ellen Ives with Waste Connections inquired about Dirt Hugger supplying compost for this project, I knew our Ready to Grow soil blend was the ideal material,” said Nate Fleming, a spokesperson for Dirt Hugger. “We developed this product specifically as our raised bed mix — it provides soil nutrients, beneficial biology from the compost, and light fluffy texture for root development. All of these make for robust plant growth and, in turn, healthy food.”

“Dirt Hugger will fill the beds with another critical piece, the soil,” said Teigen. “Volunteers will do the physical work and our 5 Community Partners will provide the gardeners whose families need what the garden and Mother Nature can create!” 

Dirt Hugger donated enough of their Ready to Grow mix to fill the project’s 25 raised beds, and Dietrich Trucking agreed to donate the transport and delivery. 

“Dirt Hugger is honored to support this community garden effort. It reflects our values. We want to give back to the communities that support us,” said Fleming. “If we can close the organics recycling loop by supplying a compost soil blend to grow healthy food for those who need it most, then our mission is being fulfilled.”  

“Dietrich Trucking has been critical in making this happen,” added Fleming. “Whether they’re hauling us curbside organics to be composted or delivering finished compost to an orchard, they do excellent work. Their drivers are professional, personable, and get the job done safely.  We’re thrilled that they offered to donate the dump truck delivery for this project. Trucking is not cheap, but they too are an organization that cares deeply about their community. We’re just really grateful that they’re making it happen.”

“I am thrilled with the outpouring of support from people stepping forward to help with this project! Volunteers are coming from both our membership and the community, and over and over they tell me how much they appreciate the opportunity to help. We are so grateful to them all,” Hibbs shared.

Once the soil is delivered, Laura Lindeman and Brandy O’Shea of the Maplewood Neighborhood Association will start connecting families to garden plots so they can begin planting seeds this spring. That will take this project from conception to reality in less than five months.

“We aren’t surprised to see people in the community stepping up to help, it’s something we see every day in this association. But it is really impressive to see something at this scale come together so quickly,” said O’Shea. “We can’t wait to get our hands dirty in the garden.”

There’s still a lot of work to do to get there, and the team is asking for help. Donations for the Maplewood Moseley Community Garden at UUCV can be made through GoFundMe account gf.me/u/y55tj8. Checks can be sent to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Vancouver, P.O. Box 1621, Vancouver, WA  98668-1621 (indicate “community garden” in the memo). 

Updates on the garden’s progress can be viewed on Facebook at: facebook.com/Ma plewoodMoseleyGarden/.

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