In the Community
November 23, 2011
Urban Oasis Flourishes in Oregon with Help from Kaiser Permanente
Imagine lush green gardens abundant with stalks of corn and herbs, crops of spinach and Brussels sprouts, vines of squash and melon, and dozens of productive tomato and tomatillo plants. Perhaps you imagined this place as a school or neighborhood garden in an upscale “foodie” part of town or as a small co-op farm in a rural area. Think again.
This vibrant garden is located in an inner-urban, mixed-income housing development in North Portland, Ore. It is part of the community’s Village Gardens project, a fully-integrated community health project supported by Janus Youth Programs, and developed and operated by community members for community members. Kaiser Permanente is one of several community partners providing financial support and assistance to the Village Gardens community.
“What the Village Gardens community is today is really the outcome of so many groups and individuals coming together to grow the vision for health,” says Molly Haynes, project manager for Kaiser Permanente’s Community Health Initiatives. “This could not have happened without the support of all the groups that contributed. Yet, the real vision and leadership sprouted from within the community.”
If you visit with the community leaders involved with Village Gardens, you begin to get a picture of how special this place is. It’s a sunny day in September and Charles Robertson, a resident gardener and one of the leading community organizers, is showing a few visitors around the gardens and market. He pulls a bright red tomato from the vine. “Everyone must try one of these.” He passes the tomatoes around, and everyone bites into them as if they were apples. “Isn’t this great?” he says. He spans the garden with a huge grin and look of wonder and pride. “You can’t beat a tomato like this. And it’s grown right here, in this community.”
This same level of pride is evident in all of the community members involved with Village Gardens — it comes from a sense of self-creation and ownership. What started out as a small group of residents seeking to plant a garden for themselves has now grown to several large gardens spanning three housing developments.
Built by the Community
The Village Gardens project today is a union of three neighborhoods — St. John’s Woods, New Columbia, and Tamarack — with people working together as one unified community to create an oasis of food security for themselves. Community gardens are staffed and tended to by nearly 100 families representing 18 different nationalities. Youth leaders from the community run a farm program on nearby Sauvie Island in North Portland, where they learn to grow and sell sustainable produce at Portland farmers markets and local grocery stores. Recently, residents joined together to open a healthy corner market, which they named Village Market, stocked with fresh produce and other nutritious and ethnically diverse offerings. All of this has been planned, executed and now managed by members of the Village Gardens community in an area of Portland that has traditionally not been perceived as a place of opportunity.
The healthy corner market builds on residents’ belief that they can create amenities in their community that are seen as the status quo in other areas of the city. Before the market, residents would travel many miles, often by public transportation, to find a grocery store with healthy foods. Now those healthy foods are at their doorstep. The Village Market employs local youth and adults from the surrounding neighborhoods to staff and manage the store. And neighborhood residents have been the driving force behind all aspects of the store design — from aisle layouts and food and produce selection, to energy-efficient lighting and vegetable preservation units, to artwork produced by residents — all carefully researched and thought out by community leaders with fellow residents in mind.
Growing the Vision
The community members’ future goals are to serve not only the residents of Village Gardens, but the 10,000 people living within a half-mile radius. Ultimately, they hope that Village Market will serve as a model that others can use to create a healthier, more sustainable force in their community.
Kaiser Permanente is one of several key partners working collaboratively to fund and support the vision of the Village Gardens community. Other partners include the Northwest Health Foundation, Meyer Memorial Trust, the Oregon Community Foundation, Multnomah County Health Department, the City of Portland, the Lamb Foundation, Portland Development Commission, RBC Wealth Management Foundation, Heifer International, Home Forward, The Bill Healy Foundation, United Way of the Columbia-Willamette, Providence Health and Services, Oregon Public Health Institute, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.