Gardens for life
Adam Kohl's first garden memory was when he was 2 years old in Hong Kong and his dad had installed raised garden beds on the roof of their apartment building to grow vegetables. It was not a success.
"All the food got eaten by neighborhood chickens," he said, chuckling at the memory.
Now, 40 years later, and after a two-decades career in the private sector, Kohl is the founder and executive director of Outgrowing Hunger.
The Gresham-based nonprofit organization manages 12 community gardens in Gresham and East Multnomah County totaling more than seven acres and serving 450 families. Although the gardens are open to anyone, more than 85% of the gardeners are refugees or immigrants from Asia, Africa, Central America and former Soviet-bloc countries.
Outgrowing Hunger "seeks to fight hunger and nutritional injustice by transforming unused public and private lands into a productive resource — growing healthy food, resilient community and economic opportunity," its materials explain.
Kohl emphasizes that the gardens provide more than healthful, inexpensive, organic food. The gardeners are creating community. They are getting exercise, fresh air and sunlight.
Kohl is looking for more ground to till.
"Our program is completely out of space," he said. "I don't have one square foot of garden space left."
New garden spots?
Kohl is talking with Multnomah County and others to see if new community gardens can be developed to satisfy the demand.
Kohl's eyes twinkle when he mentions other possible plots around the Gresham area that he's identified as potentially good sites for community gardens.
Kohl, 42, was born in Hong Kong to parents who worked at a Lutheran school there. The family moved to Oregon in 1980 and he spent his youth in La Grande.
The Sandy resident has always been a gardener, growing vegetables with his grandfather and building raised beds at his parent's home as a way to make up for getting into some trouble in high school.
"While I was in college, I was always daydreaming about guerrilla gardening and thinking about how we have more than enough resources and yet people were hungry. There's more than enough to go around," Kohl said.
Kohl earned an undergraduate degree from George Fox University, Newberg, in international studies. He obtained his master's degree in business administration specializing in sustainable business management in 2010. He speaks French and Spanish, which can help in communicating with some of the gardeners.
After more than 20 years in positions with the paint and coatings giant Sherwin-Williams Company, Kohl was fired in 2011.
He counted the unwanted separation from his job as a major blessing in his life.
"I was making decisions that I wasn't comfortable with ethically," he said, "but I felt trapped by how much money I was making."
Nonetheless, he said at the time he was distraught by his termination. His wife was about to have one of their two children.
He spent several months searching his soul about what to do next.
"Outgrowing Hunger came out of that," he said.
At first, he thought an initial, single-location garden project would be a transition until he decided what kind of job he would pursue next.
In 2012, he was building out that first garden at Lynwood Friends Church on Southeast 162nd Avenue. The church generously kept adding space to the garden until Outgrowing Hunger finally ended up with two acres.
He tweaked the operating plans for the gardens and Outgrowing Hunger until he hit on the winning formula of individual plots for each family.
He had found his mission.
Kohl began networking with nonprofit organizations and public agencies.
In the summer of 2013 Kohl organized a potluck and asked his then 23 gardening families to invite friends and neighbors.
"I ended up with 80 people on the waiting list" for garden plots, he said.
The same year, the city of Gresham sent out a request for proposals to manage its three-site community garden program.
"We were the only bidders," he said.
Under his stewardship, Gresham's program has grown to six gardens with 168 plots. These gardens are open to anyone who lives or works in Gresham. Plots costs $25 per year.
For Outgrowing Hunger's other six gardens, the ground is provided by Adventist Health, Portland Parks & Recreation, churches and others.
Kohl has fans, among them Tina Osterink, natural resources planner for the city of Gresham, who has worked with Kohl.
"He's a savvy gardener and nonprofit manager who really knows how to build community around food access in such an authentic way," she said.
The gardeners pay a small fee, from about $15 to $100 per year for their plots. Some of the gardens allow those growing the food to sell it, but some locations won't.
"I don't discourage the sale of the vegetables, but it is prohibited by some locations," Kohl said.
Most of the immigrants and refugees who make up the bulk of the gardeners have experience gardening or farming.
"Almost all have substantial agriculture experience. Most come from rural areas and they were agricultural laborers or subsistence farmers. They had to garden to eat anything besides rice. One told me 'if I didn't garden, I would have starved to death,'" Kohl said.
The gardeners grow everything from tomatoes to squash to chard. Many grow vegetables, herbs and medicinal plants from their native countries that are not available in Oregon stores.
Kohl said that as important as the nutrition and inexpensive, healthy food is, the more important factor is the mental health benefits for the gardeners.
"When we talk to the gardeners, they say the leading reason they like the garden is that it makes them happy and reduces stress. They say 'this is our health center.'"
Kohl says "my heart is to help new arrivals to America. I want them to thrive. I want them to contribute culturally, civically and economically."
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