Last April, on a sunny Sunday afternoon, the First Presbyterian Church in downtown Cottage Grove hosted its annual Meet My Farmer event. Vendors and participants packed the main hall promoting and discussing a wide variety of food-related activities. A woman passed out leaflets promoting a local community garden, a farmer discussed her raw milk and the share system she used to sell it, Saginaw Vineyard poured wine tastings, and the Cottage Grove Garden Club sold plants and talked about gardening.
In previous years, the activity would have been contained to this one room, however this time it spilled into the room next door, which was set aside for educational talks, and into the room next to that where Log House Plants had rows of vegetable plants for sale. Outside in the courtyard, a big pot of African stew cooked over an innovative wood stove, designed and built by the local InStove company.
The bustle of activity in the church and the number of people who attended the educational programs, bought plants, learned about Community Supported Agriculture, and otherwise tapped into the local food system was the direct result of a day-long event which occurred the previous April. That event was “FEAST,” a community organizing process developed by the Oregon Food Bank which brings together community members to have discussions about food, education, agriculture, and creating healthy food systems.
In Cottage Grove, FEAST would not have happened without the committed energy of local resident Beth Pool who has a passion for food. “Bringing people into the awareness that food is fundamental to everyone’s functioning -– be it emotional, mental, physical -– is critical for me,” Pool says.
The goal of FEAST, according to Spencer Masterson, a community resource developer at the Oregon Food Bank, is to help “communities come up with their own solutions dealing with hunger and food insecurity.” While it is important to address the immediate needs of the hungry, the Oregon Food Bank also wants to address the root causes of hunger. FEAST, which stands for Food * Education * Agriculture * Solutions * Together, is a process that brings together community members to discuss ways to create a healthy local food system.
A healthy food system, as defined by the Oregon Food Bank, is as a collaborative network which integrates food production, processing, distribution and waste management. The goal is to enhance the economy, the environment, individual’s health and the social fabric of a community. Pool explains it this way, “ideally in a healthy food system you want it to be curricular – like a cycle of life – with no beginning or end.”
The Oregon Food Bank provides the FEAST structure as well as a facilitator who works with the organizers to plan the day-long event and then lead discussions about the role of food and agriculture in the community during the event.
By tapping into the local food resources, numerous communities across the state, including Cottage Grove, have used the FEAST model to find answers to their food needs.
FEAST in Cottage Grove
Cottage Grove is home to a core group of people passionate about creating a local food movement. Pool is one of those people. A teacher by trade, Pool spent part of her professional career teaching home economics at the junior high level. She enjoyed teaching “foods” because it was like teaching multiple subjects. “I could use food – or eating – as the medium to improve the skills of my students,” Pool says. “It was easy for them to invest in their own learning because they could see the applicability of the math, the science, and the history.”
Pool is passionate about food and sustainable systems. “Food is fundamental to human life and to a community,” she says. “It crosses all boundaries – political, social and educational.” With the support of Masterson and the Oregon Food Bank, Pool and four other organizers launched Cottage Grove’s FEAST event in April 2014. At least 70 participants attended, including representatives from the city, the school district, the local food pantry and other community organizations, farmers, and individuals interested in a local food movement. cgFEAST was born.
During the day-long envisioning process, attendees identified the needs, assets, and opportunities in the Cottage Grove area. Later, these were clustered into four working groups, which cgFEAST continues to use. The “Eating Food” working group focuses on nutrition education and community awareness, and the “Advocating for Food” group works toward systems change mostly at the county and state level, such as the farm-to-school movement. The last two groups, “Working with Food” and “Growing Food” are currently involved on the most noticeable changes within Cottage Grove – an expanded “Meet My Farmer” and a revitalized community and school garden at the high school.
Meet My Farmer
When the First Presbyterian Church organized Cottage Grove’s first Meet My Farmer, the goal was to celebrate Earth Day and at the same time, to introduce the congregation to local farmers, says Joyce Cameron and Cindy Sharp, two of the organizers. Over the years, Meet My Farmer grew slowly, however it always stayed an hour-long event happening right after church. In January 2015, Cameron and Sharp attended a quarterly cgFEAST meeting. They promoted Meet My Farmer and invited cgFEAST to join them in organizing the event. It was a good fit.
According to Pool, during the initial FEAST event in 2014, one of the farmers noted that “we can grow the food, all we need is consumers.” Meet My Farmer was one way to develop connections between local producers and the community.
With the enthusiastic involvement of cgFEAST, Meet My Farmer grew to three hours, educational talks were added, more vendors were invited to attend and the focus grew from promoting farmers to the congregation, to promoting the whole local food system to the community.
Valerie Rocco is a local farmer and owner of Brice Creek Croft, a small, low impact farm located outside of Cottage Grove. Rocco participated in past Meet My Farmer events and with the involvement of cgFEAST, she felt it was more accessible to the public and it was “more of an educational experience.”
Cottage Grove High School Garden
Cottage Grove resident Joel Reiten has been involved in community and school gardens for the past 20 years. Currently he is employed with Seeds of Change a national organic seed company, working to preserve rare, heirloom and traditional seed varieties and promote sustainable agricultural practices. Seeds of Change has a seed production facility not far from Cottage Grove. “We do so many projects in other parts of the country,” Reiten says, “so [I] wanted to get more involved with what was going on here.”
Participants at Cottage Grove’s FEAST event placed a high priority on establishing community gardens. Through the network established at the event, an unused garden and greenhouse at the high school were quickly identified. Krista Parent, superintendent of the South Lane School District, says that every school in the district has a school garden. Unfortunately the garden at Cottage Grove High School had been inactive for the past couple of years.
With the involvement of Reiten, the high school gardens have been completely revitalized and the greenhouse has undergone extensive work to make it functional again. Though still in its infancy, this project has two aspects, a community garden and a school garden program.
Community gardens “bring together the people with knowledge, with the people that have the desire but not as much knowledge,” Reiten says. Even in more rural towns, there is a need for community gardens as many households have small yards, yards without sunshine, or no yards at all, Reiten notes.
The new community garden at the high school is still in the beginning phases. “We are pretty happy with how the first year has been,” Reiten says. It takes time for people to get comfortable using a community garden.
A benefit for the school is that the community garden helps “to connect the community to the school,” says Iton Udosenata, principal at Cottage Grove High School. He continues, “We welcome groups to use our space, especially when it is community-minded or civic centered, and the community garden is an extension of that.”
This garden joins an already established community garden available at Bohemia Elementary. cgFEAST will focus on establishing these two gardens before adding more.
Cottage Grove High School used to have a horticultural curriculum, notes Parent, but it lost momentum when the instructor in charge retired. Now, the garden and greenhouse have come back to life, and the curriculum is beginning to take shape again.
“The gardens and green house are a way to create a dynamic educational experience,” Principal Udosenata says. “A lot of our students are interested in a horticultural curriculum,” he continues. “They want to go on to Oregon State University in agriculture, forestry, and sustainability.”
Reiten says he would also like to see the school district more involved in producing food that it can use, as well as tap into the local farmers in the area to source more of their produce locally. Parent agrees. “We’d like to look at how to use the produce in our foods [cafeteria] program, but there are a lot of regulations” she says. Right now, families take the food home and they do “food tastings” at the school.
While the expanded Meet My Farmer and the revitalized high school garden might be the most obvious initial outcomes of cgFEAST, it is the sum of the group’s efforts which are working together to create a healthy community food system. As noted by farmer Rocco, the cooking and nutrition classes being taught at the school are reaching people who might not go to Meet My Farmer. At the same time, Pool notes that by inviting parents to take a class on cooking and nutrition education, students who are working in the school garden or learning about healthy food will have that knowledge reinforced at home. State policies, which the “Advocating for Food” working group address, impact the ability of schools to obtain produce from local farmers.
One reason Cottage Grove had such a successful FEAST event, Masterson says, is that the core group of organizers took a long time to plan. That long-term time frame helped create an event with a lot of intentionality, a lot of diverse people attended which contributed to the momentum that is still alive today. “It is more than just a point-in-time event,” Masterson says. “It can turn into something bigger if the right people are involved and are willing to dedicate the time to make it happen.”
As networks and connections are formed, new ideas and avenues are opened up. “We are really trying to explore what other partnerships we can have with cgFEAST,” Superintendent Parent says. “It is a great partnership, … we all care about health and wellness.”
This year, Meet My Farmer happens Saturday, April 2, 2016. 1:00-5:00pm at Pioneer Square on the corner of 10th and Washington Streets (across from Bohemia Park). Organizers say that you’ll find plant starts from local growers; fresh fruits and vegetables; local animal products (like yogurt, cheese, and eggs); locally produced food goodies (chocolate!, jam, fermented foods); a petting pen of baby farm animals with local 4-Hers; talks about bees, CSAs, etc; and ready-to-eat homemade food.
To find out more about cgFEAST and the exciting things they are doing in Cottage Grove, email firstname.lastname@example.org.