Keeping Us Healthy winner at our 2020 Light a Fire Awards: Growing Gardens

It was 2018, and Rashae Burns was having health problems. She wanted access to a better diet, but she didn’t know the first thing about growing vegetables in her North Portland yard.

Enter Growing Gardens, a Portland nonprofit with roots four decades back. The organization helped Burns get set up with her own garden as well as learn some fundamentals. “I had never heard of a program like this before. I know there’s workshops, but actually coming in on the ground floor and helping you build [a garden]—that was super-exciting for me.” Burns was so inspired by the group’s work, she joined the team, and is now the home gardens director.

Since Dan Barker—a home gardener himself—planted the first seed, Growing Gardens, which became an official nonprofit in 1996, has worked annually with 300 families from a low-income demographic, focusing on communities of color.

“It’s really about building long-term relationships,” says Jason Skipton, the nonprofit’s executive director. “Nothing in our programs are ‘drop in, here’s a packet of seeds, here’s a garden—we hope it works out,’ because we know that’s not a way to build positive and social change.”

As a group, Growing Gardens believes everyone should have equal access to nurturing foods no matter their economic status. And COVID-19 hasn’t stopped them from continuing to build gardens for families in need. Their Youth Grow program, which operates out of 10 elementary schools and one high school, has shifted to digital content; distributing educational videos to partnering schools for students and parents. The nonprofit also developed an at-home kit offered at school-based food pantries.

A more recent program is Growing Gardens’ Lettuce Grow, which currently works in 16 correctional facilities across the state. Last year alone, the nonprofit assisted in the growth of over 300,000 pounds of produce on Department of Corrections land. Through the program, Growing Gardens provides job training from inside so that former inmates have the skill sets to work in the nursery industry or small-scale agriculture on release.

It all starts with a planter box, but that’s just the beginning. “It’s the whole process of nurturing yourself, nurturing the produce, and the mental health aspect, being able to grow healthy foods, enjoying the foods, and taking pride in what you were able to accomplish,” says Burns. “Growing Gardens is all about family.”

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