“Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” —World Food Summit
The Columbia River Gorge looks like a food-rich place. Our valleys are covered in orchards, the eastern hills are golden with wheat, the rivers are famous for salmon, and the forests are full of berries, mushrooms, and wild game. You’d think all of us would be well fed.
But no. One in three Gorge residents worry about where their next meal will come from, while one in five actually miss meals regularly, according to a 2015 survey conducted by the Columbia Gorge Health Council and One Community Health.
Meanwhile, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture census data, 98 percent of the food eaten in the Gorge is imported from elsewhere, and more than 90 percent of the food grown in the Gorge is exported.
Improving Food Access
In just six months, the Food Security Coalition in the Gorge has made major progress. “What we’ve learned is that concrete actions arise when we simply gather the right people together to collaborate,” says Sarah Sullivan, director of Gorge Grown Food Network. Here are a few of the victories:
● Collaboration between tribal members, the Department of Human Services and the Oregon Food Bank led to the beginning of monthly deliveries of much-needed produce and food to Celilo Village.
● The town of Lyle started a “backpack program” to provide food insecure children with food on the weekends.
● Gorge Grown Food Network organized farmers and gleaners to donate hundreds of pounds of produce regularly to the Cascade Locks Food Banks.
● Orchard View Farms donated 14,000 pounds of cherries per week to the Oregon Food Bank in 2016.
● A group in Klickitat is now hosting a regular meal for seniors.
● Washington Gorge Action Program dedicated staff time to support Klickitat County community gardens.
● Wahtonka Community School in The Dalles is planning to open a food pantry.
● 40 food bank clients and community partners attended a listening session in Cascade Locks; as a result, the food bank added an additional day of service each month and is working to address other specific needs of the community.
● The City of The Dalles is funding the “Power of Produce” program, $2 tokens for youth to buy fresh fruits or vegetables at The Dalles Farmers Market.
● Oregon State University staff recently developed a Food Hero training through the newly formed Gorge Nutrition Education Network. The training will prepare volunteers for food bank outreach, nutrition education and farmers market tours.
● One Community Health staff developed an online calendar to promote nutrition classes Gorge-wide.
● Gorge Grown Food Network hosted workshops for farmers this winter to help them distribute and market their products.
● OSU staff organized a meeting to link community garden coordinators in Oregon and Washington; 35 people attended in order to learn from each other to help these programs thrive.
● The Next Door facilitated a successful “Seed to Supper” gardening/cooking class taught in Spanish.
● The Eastern Oregon Coordinated Care Organization Local Community Advisory Committee allocated funding for Veggie Prescriptions (Rx) for low-income residents of Sherman County, providing fresh produce access to our most rural residents.
● Allen’s Grocery and La Michoacana are stocking healthy fruits and vegetables through Gorge Grown Food Network’s new “Healthy Cornerstore Project,” funded by the Knight Cancer Institute. These stores will provide fresh produce in low-income neighborhoods with very limited access to healthy options.
Needless to say, the food system needs some repair, and the local food movement is gaining ground.
You don’t have to believe in climate change, the Big Earthquake, or going “back to the land” to value a local food system. During last winter’s snow and ice storms, I-84 was shut down, a not-uncommon occurrence in the Gorge, and within a couple of days grocery store shelves and produce aisles were becoming depleted. In addition, Oregon Food Bank trucks could not get to food pantries in the Gorge, elderly residents were trapped at home in rural food “deserts,” miles away from stores, while children who depend on school lunches for the majority of their calories did not eat when the schools were closed for days at a time.
Food insecurity is not theoretical here, it’s happening all around us — especially when we are cut off from the imported food so many of us depend upon. Barbara Ayers, emergency manager with the Hood River County Sherriff’s office, recommends having at least a two-week supply of food at home.
A statewide study by the Oregon Community Food Systems Network was recently completed on “the state of the local food system.” The study ranked each county, considering 36 different factors. In Hood River County, the average cost of an acre of farmland rose from $9,360 in 2002 to $19,000 in 2012. That’s a whopping 103.3 percent increase, and anyone who has looked at property recently could guess that it’s increased even more in the last five years. The total land in production has gone down by 12 percent. The average age of a Hood River Farmer is 58, and the average annual compensation for a farm job is just $28,404. All of this makes it harder for new farmers to get started, and aging farmers worry about who might keep their farms in business.
Sherman County is even worse off. Crop diversity adds to the strength of a local food system, and Sherman County is almost exclusively producing wheat and beef. The number of cattle farms fell by 40 percent between 2002 and 2012. Farm employment? Down 20 percent as of 2014.
But the truth is the Gorge used to be self-reliant, and we could be again. For all of the people dependent on imported food, many of our neighbors are growing gardens and raising chickens in their yards. They are putting up food for the winter, and developing seeds suited to our unique environment. They are out there hunting, fishing, and foraging to feed their families.
And here is more good news: in Hood River County, overall farm sales went up almost 19 percent between 2007 and 2014. We have school gardens at many of our schools now. There are more small farm owners producing a diversity of crops, and we’ve gone from one farmers market in the Gorge to eight. So who is this local food movement?
The Gorge Food Security Coalition
When leaders throughout the five-county region of the Gorge learned about how widespread hunger is here, they got together to do something about it.
The Food Security Coalition, formed in 2016, is a network of more than 35 organizations and agencies from all sectors working to improve food access for all. Who’s at the table? Tribal leaders, social service providers, economically disadvantaged food insecure residents, healthcare professionals, farmers, distributors, food bank leaders, staff from every hospital and health department in the Gorge, orchardists — you name them.
The coalition’s long-term goals are multifaceted, and we believe in a holistic approach. We need more cold storage and better distribution for locally grown products. We need community meals, food processing facilities, year-round markets, and infrastructure for farmers like hoop houses. Healthcare professional would like the ability to prescribe healthy food with health care funding. Farmers need training in things like marketing, welding and business management. Schools need school garden coordinators. Ultimately, all residents need to make a living wage to afford enough food, regardless of where that food is grown. Hunger is directly linked to poverty, and those producing, picking, and serving our food deserve a fair, living wage.
As a pregnant, low-income, mother, Mandi Rae Pope screened positive for food insecurity during a visit to the Health Department a couple of years ago, and she was enrolled in the Veggie Prescription (Rx) Program. Veggie Rx provides $30 in vouchers per month to people like Pope to purchase fresh fruits and veggies.
“Food is medicine,” Pope writes. “My heart just about exploded with gratitude when I bought my first pint of fresh, local blueberries. I was able to watch my son enjoy a simple, beautiful pleasure without one worry. He said ‘thank you’ to the guy who grew them with a blue face. A win-win — I get to let my baby eat something good for him and I get to use this as a teaching moment about where our food comes from.”
Pope volunteered to participate in the Veggie Rx PhotoVoice evaluation project. She found the process of shaping the program as a participant through her own lived experience empowering. She was so inspired by the community health workers facilitating the focus group’s gritty conversations around hunger that she enrolled in a community health worker training and joined the Food Security Coalition. She now facilitates parts of the coalition meetings, and she leads the Restaurant Engagement group.
While Pope was enrolled in Veggie Rx, she was working at a restaurant in Hood River. By courageously sharing her story with her former employer and other restaurant owners, she is inspiring them to take action. Chef Ben Stenn of Celilo Restaurant and Bar committed staff time to teach cooking-on-a-budget classes to other Veggie Rx recipients. Solstice Restaurant added a special item to its menu, donating part of the proceeds to the Food Security Coalition. Celilo co-owner Maui Meyer donated funding to enable low-income residents to participate in coalition meetings by providing childcare, mileage reimbursement, and small stipends.
This is the coalition’s greatest success: not only are we feeding more people, but leaders from communities facing disparities are on the front lines while business owners are coming together to support the cause. We are learning from, and working beside, the people we aim to serve. I believe this is how the most successful movements catalyze lasting change.
Buck Jones is another coalition leader from the Cayuse (Umatilla) tribe. He works as a salmon marketing specialist with the Columbia River Intertribal Fisheries Commission, and he’s spent a lot of time on the river fishing. Jones spoke to the coalition about the salmon that go to waste if fisherman can’t sell it quickly enough. It’s a lot of fish, according to Jones. There is an opportunity to redirect that fish — could we flash freeze it? Market a Gorge-made salmon chowder? Distribute it to food banks? Why not?
3 tightly packed cups of locally grown carrot tops, parsley, basil or any combo
¼ cup Oregon-grown hazelnuts, walnuts or chestnuts
1-2 cloves farmers market garlic
½ tsp. Oregon sea salt
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 tsp. lemon juice (buy your own little lemon tree to keep indoors from your local nursery)
6 Tbs. or about 1/2 cup Oregon olive oil (Red Ridge Farms)
Using a mortar and pestle or food processor, make a paste of the nuts, garlic and salt. Wash and dry the greens. Add them slowly to the walnut-garlic mixture, a little at a time to make a smooth paste. When all greens/nuts are ground (you may need to do it in batches) mix in the grated Parmesan and olive oil. Eat well.
With all of this momentum, we need to increase production of local food, and that means more people buying locally. Contrary to popular belief, local food is not always more expensive. Last fall, Gorge Grown Food Network did a cost analysis of local food sold at the farmers market versus imported food at a several popular local grocery stores. Many products were the same price or cheaper at farmers markets — you just have to look. And, not only can you find a deal by shopping locally, the dollars you spend where you live matter. If just 20 percent of the fruit, veggies, and meat we eat were purchased directly from a local farmer, we’d keep $9.6 million extra in the Gorge.
Here are some other ways to buy local and maximize your dollars:
Join a CSA or Farm Share
CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. Basically, you get a subscription to a farm in the form of a regular share or box of food. Some CSAs are just veggies or fruit; others include meat, eggs, and products like jam or sauerkraut. One benefit of belonging to a CSA is you buy into a club of sorts that celebrates the farm. You may be invited to seasonal potlucks, and by paying up front, you give the farmer security of knowing they have customers they don’t otherwise have when relying on unpredictable markets. You can search for CSAs through Gorge Grown Food Network’s online food directory.
Buy grains, meat, and fermented food in bulk
You are probably familiar with the bulk section of your grocery store, but have you ever purchased a whole or half hog to share with neighbors? Buying fresh, local meat in bulk can really reduce the cost of eating quality, locally produced animal protein.
Blue Bus Cultured Foods sells its sauerkrauts and other fermented foods in bulk for discounted prices from its storefront in Bingen. Cascadia Creamery sells discounted wheels of cheese you could split with your friends.
Some farms sell “seconds,” or just-less-than-perfect produce for deep discounts. Want to make some peach jam or tomato sauce? Ask your farmer for a discount on produce that may not be perfect for market, but is still excellent for canning or freezing.
According to the USDA, 40 percent of the food grown in the U.S. is thrown out. The “ugly fruit” campaign is gaining ground worldwide. When did we come to expect our food to look absolutely perfect? If you’ve ever gardened, you know about the work that goes in to that strawberry patch or lettuce bed, and you may be willing to eat around the munched leaf or little hole in your fruit.
Consider using all parts of the products you buy locally. Carrot top pesto has a delicious, nutty flavor. Kale stems can go right into your smoothie. Beet greens are great sautéed. Homemade bone broth makes the best soup. Animal organs have way more nutrients than the muscle meat we are used to eating; they are packed with heavy doses of vitamin B, vitamin D, folic acid, minerals and omega-3s.
Columbia Gorge Gleaning links volunteers with farms to harvest produce that would otherwise go to waste. At least 50 percent of the harvest goes to food banks, senior centers and schools. You can join the group or donate your crop by going to www.gorgegleaning.com.
Local food tastes better and is more nutritious
All food starts to lose nutrients as soon as it is harvested. Studies through the University of California have shown that most produce loses at least 30 percent of nutrition three days after harvest. Spinach, for example, loses 90 percent of its vitamin C within 24 hours of harvest.
The future of farming
The most incredible farm I’ve ever worked on was called Tagari, designed by Bill Mollison. There was food growing wherever you looked. Nut and fruit trees served as productive trellises for beans and squash. The sweet potato ground cover shaded out weeds while producing nutritious tubers. Animals were rotated through parts of the landscape. Carefully designed ponds were stocked with fish and placed uphill from the rest of the farm to feed nutrient dense, gravity driven water downhill. I remember catching pike for dinner from the pond edge under the mulberry trees whose berries fed the fish and nearby chickens. Everything was edible. You could gather a meal in just a few minutes including every food group, and many of the plants were perennial so the work was minimal. Mollison called it “permaculture,” a type of closed-loop, super-efficient system based on traditional farming techniques, minimum waste, and multiple yields in one space. It was inspiring.
I do believe a thriving, local food system will require more diverse small and mid-sized farms. Innovative farms like Tagari keep the land intact, sequester carbon, and increase production over time without chemicals and oil. Do we all have to go back to homesteading and growing our own food? Of course not, but we need to support our local farmers, prioritize and diversify production in the Gorge, and make sure all of our neighbors are food secure.
I feel hopeful when I envision what our local food system could be.
Imagine the most abundant, fruitful land, where every person and animal has more than enough to eat. Imagine every home, school, hospital and belly full of the most nutritious food grown here. Imagine the layers of food: asparagus in every orchard, kale in every yard, all of the high protein hazelnuts and walnuts we can stomach and share. Envision Wasco and Sherman counties growing an incredible diversity of nutritious and heirloom grains, beans, and lentils and our rivers full of fish.
Imagine every child spending time in the school garden studying all subjects, foraging in the forest and fishing in the river. Imagine the cross-cultural, cross-county, cross-generational, cross-species collaboration: when we take care of the rivers and salmon, they make more salmon; when we preserve the forest, the deer, bear, and berries abound; when our youth are raised to respect the land, they in turn will feed us well when we age.
Imagine if we were the epicenter of crop development — specialty seeds, outrageously beautiful and drought tolerant vegetables and fruits that researchers travel across the world to behold. Imagine local products like dried fruit, nut butter, smoked fish, nettle pesto, pickled fiddlehead ferns and baby food being world renowned. Imagine creative entrepreneurs making living wages producing unique products that celebrate the bounty and wise stewardship of the Gorge.
Imagine ingenious ways discovered here to hold water in the landscape, under and above ground. And imagine the efficient distribution systems: Portland folks jump on the train or sailing farmers market, and they travel up the river and back into our valleys to come share the abundance.
Imagine that the people who pick our fruit and tend our farms all have a place at the table. Those that need help finding more food are not just handed calories, but are empowered through vocational training, healed through support from the healthcare community and taught how to cook and grow food. We are all enveloped in a participatory, celebratory food system. We’ve resurrected the culture of food, together.
Sarah Sullivan is the Executive Director of Gorge Grown Food Network, a non-profit working to build an inclusive, resilient food system in the Columbia River Gorge. As former executive director of both Hawaii SEED and The Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association, Sullivan has extensive experience in movement-building, organizational management and agricultural policy. She is also a trained Permaculture designer and instructor. To find out more about how to get involved in local food system work and hunger relief, visit www.gorgegrown.com.