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

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

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.

Andrea immediately signed up. The following spring a volunteer team from Growing Gardens helped the family install and plant two 8-foot-by-4-foot vegetable beds, making them one of the more than 650 families the organization has helped since its start in 1996.

"They were always available for questions," says Andrea. "The mentors come out three times a year to make sure you're doing ok."

The first-time gardener was hooked. She found that a few sore muscles and some dirt under her nails were a small price to pay for the many rewards of a homegrown harvest. Growing things like cabbage instead of crabgrass was helping her cut her grocery bills by at least $150 a month. Not only that, her whole family was eating better, spending more time outdoors, and her kids were getting a firsthand education in the life cycle of food.

"It's been a great experience for the whole family. Nothing beats walking out to your backyard, pulling up a few carrots, a cucumber and some lettuce and making a salad on the spot."

It turns out the family is part of a growing trend, as more people across the country are responding to economic and food-security issues by swapping out green lawns for leafy greens. According to a recent survey by the National Gardening Association, 7 million more U.S. households planned to grow some of their own food in 2009 than in 2008-a 19 percent increase. That's nearly double the 10 percent increase in vegetable gardening from 2007 to 2008. Their reasons? More than 50 percent say they want to save money on their food bills while 48 percent say they want to grow food that they know is safe.

It wasn't long before the Flores family turned those two beds into seven, and added more than half a dozen fruit trees. Now the Flores' backyard teems with fresh fruits and vegetables from spring through fall, providing enough extra food to put up for the winter. The garden is so prolific, in fact, Andrea has had to get a lot more creative with her cooking.

"I definitely cook different things than I did before," she says.

As Andrea's repertoire grew, so did her cooking skills as she began working with vegetables she had never tried before-at least not fresh. "As a child the vegetables I ate were usually canned. I never had fresh spinach. Now we love kale and spinach. When we started growing beets, I read how to bake them. I made salad of baked beets and caramelized pecans and balsamic vinaigrette with garlic we'd grown. It was this amazing salad I ate every day. I had only ever had pickled beets."

By contrast, Andrea's children are getting their education in raising and preparing fresh vegetables at a much earlier age. Growing up around the garden-eating from it, interacting with it-is setting the groundwork for a lifelong appreciation of nutritious foods.

"It teaches them where food comes from, and how things grow from seeds, and what the seed looks like," says Andrea.

Suddenly, carrots aren't those woody orange sticks from the supermarket. They're special, grown from impossibly tiny seeds the kids tucked into the soil themselves. They watched as the delicate greens emerged from the earth, grew taller and fuller. And as that carrot seed transformed, so did the children's attitudes about vegetables, changing from something they were supposed to eat, to something they wanted to eat.

"They're willing to try them," says Andrea, "because they grew them themselves."

Danielle Centoni is a freelance writer, editor and recipe developer in Portland, Oregon. She is the co-author of Mother's Best (Taunton Press, 2009).

Katie Webster is a recipe developer and food stylist for EatingWell.

March/April 2010