Grow Your Dinner and Save Money with a Vegetable Garden

By Danielle Centoni, "Growing Dinner," March/April 2010

How one group is helping low-income families save hundreds of dollars by trading green lawns for spring’s leafy greens.

"This is a great idea! I wish we had one of these programs in our area! "

Bursting through the back door, their arms loaded with beets, carrots and parsnips topped with a mess of leafy greens, the three young girls had just one thing on their minds: “We’re going to make soup for the fairies,” they shouted in unison.

Ursula, age 10, her sister Carmina, 6, and their cousin Ebony, 8, had been playing out back when they took one look at all the vegetables growing in the yard and were inspired. “They brought it all in and chopped it all up,” says Ursula and Carmina’s mother, Andrea Flores. “I gave them a little broth, let it simmer, and they had it for lunch. They have their own relationship with the food out there.”

“Out there” is a sun-drenched micro-farm otherwise known as the Flores family’s Portland, Oregon, backyard. Though the family lives on a typical city block in a working-class neighborhood, corn, tomatoes, grapevines and apple trees grow with gusto just steps from their door.

But turn back the clock a few years and that same backyard was just an expanse of scruffy lawn, and fresh vegetables were a luxury Andrea and her husband, Eugene, could barely afford on their food-stamp allowance. Since Andrea stays home to care for the three young children, the family of five must get by on Eugene’s income as a server at a local restaurant.

Even with such limited funds, Andrea, a longtime vegetarian, made sure vegetables made it into the shopping cart every week. But it wasn’t easy—especially if she wanted to buy something organic or locally grown.

“We always had produce but it was difficult to buy organic,” she says. “The difference between a head of lettuce that was organic, and one that wasn’t, was like $3. So you’re spending an enormous amount of money on produce. And the food bank never has fruits and fresh produce. I was thinking, ‘I guess I’m going to have to buy stuff from Mexico.’”

That all changed when Andrea spotted the Growing Gardens booth at her local farmers’ market. The Portland-based nonprofit is now in its 14th year of helping low-income residents grow their own food. With help from grants, fundraisers and private donations, the program has grown from simply providing vegetable beds, seeds and starts to giving each family three years of mentoring, advice and educational workshops to keep those gardens thriving. It’s this crucial educational component that sets Growing Gardens apart from similar programs around the country.

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