Urban Grange offers fresh, local food where it's needed the most

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Charlotte Wise digs for potatoes at Zenger Farm in Southeast Portland.Kids at Zenger Farm’s summer camp are never far from a snack.

Last week they made their own popcorn, tossing in fresh herbs from the garden for flavoring — oregano, rosemary, even mint.

Other students harvested their own ingredients for a kid-friendly kale salad: carrots, radishes, butter lettuce and edible flowers from the children’s garden on site.

The oldest campers used the shiny new space to make fresh orecchiette pasta from scratch.

That level of industrious activity would have never been possible before the opening of the farm’s new, 6,600-square-foot teaching facility, the Urban Grange — part of Zenger Farm’s 20-acre site at Southeast Foster Road and 117th Avenue.

After a two-year, $2.3 million capital campaign and nine months of construction, the Urban Grange is now making its official debut — just in time for summer camp.

With the issue of food justice being at the heart of many of the region’s biggest woes — hunger, poverty, obesity and education, to name a few — the Urban Grange is more than just a building, Zenger Farm leaders say.

It’s about equity.

“Anybody from Oregon takes pride in our farmers markets,” says Mike Wenrick, who signed on as Zenger Farm’s new executive director in May. “When asparagus comes up every year, when the Hoods are ripe, when peaches are perfect. It’s part of our cultural identity. But unfortunately not everybody has that experience or access. We hope we can change that dialogue and make the bounty of our region accessible to all people.”

Low-income residents underserved

The Malden Community Orchard, a few miles away at Southeast 87th and Flavel Street (see story in June 25 Tribune) is another major point of access in the Lents and Powellhurst-Gilbert neighborhoods.

And all of Portland will be able to visit the James Beard Public Market, set to open downtown in a few years.

But that’s a world away from East Portland, where gentrification has brought the city’s lowest-income residents to an officially designated food desert.

The city has increased its Community Garden program to meet some of the need.

But the Urban Grange is equipped to become even more of a hub for healthy local food, sustainable urban agriculture and environmental stewardship.

Like the newly opened Portland Mercado on Foster and 72nd — another major boon to the community — the Grange has a commercial kitchen available for upstart entrepreneurs to use.

It will house new community cooking classes, and provide a production space for vendors at Lents International Farmers Market.

The 45 students at Zenger Farm’s summer camp last week used the Grange’s 1,200-square-foot convertible classroom, which will allow the farm to double the number of youth visiting each year, to 20,000.

Most of that increased use will come from more field trips by local schools; currently every fifth-grader in the David Douglas School District gets two trips to Zenger Farm each year, and a visit from a farmer to their school.

Wenrick says he’ll reach out to other nearby districts, like Reynolds and Portland Public, to offer similar opportunities.

The Grange also will be a home to family nutrition education workshops and farmer training programs, and for public use like neighborhood meetings or quarterly community dinners.

“The meal will be an excuse for people to gather in this community space,” Wenrick says.

Ten to 15 percent of the summer campers this year are attending through scholarships. The campers come from across Portland, including surrounding neighborhoods.

Plans for the future

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Mike Wenrick is the executive director for Zenger Farm.There’s another year left in Zenger Farm’s three-year strategic plan, but Wenrick says the Grange’s opening warrants an earlier revisit of the plan.

He’d like to rethink the way fresh food is available to the people who need it most, by offering a prepared food service of sorts.

“A lot of people are just generally living on the margins and working really hard,” he says. “They get a bunch of radishes or beets or kale or carrots (through their farmers market or CSA SNAP benefits) and they might not have time to prepare them.”

So the idea came up, Wenrick says, to make nutritious and affordable food from the Grange’s kitchen, and sell it to go. They’d have to hire a full-time cook and open a storefront, but it’s an idea the Zenger Farm board may explore.

“If we want people, especially low-income folks to change their behavior, we have to make it easy,” he says. “If it’s difficult making fresh vegetables or having fast food and you’re short on time, the decision is straightforward to most people.”

City leaders laud the development as another rung in the ladder for East Portland.

“Zenger Farm has made huge gains and significant impact by prioritizing access and equity,” Commissioner Nick Fish said in a statement. “The Urban Grange is the next step toward a Portland in which all people can learn about and enjoy fresh, local food.”

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