Photo courtesy of Bellingham Food BankMcKenna Hunt
Some would classify it as a hobby or a fun activity to do when spring time rolls around, but at the Bellingham Food Bank, gardening is being redefined year-round.
Julia Raider, head of the food bank’s Garden Project, is turning gardening into an empowering task that connects community members while feeding families at the same time, she said.
The Garden Project began in 2010 as a means to improve access and education about organic home gardening to community members according to the Garden Beet, the food bank's newsletter.
Since its beginning, the project has continued as an outreach program that now supports a diverse array of around 65 families and individuals each year.
Julia Raider is the Garden Project and non-perishable sorting coordinator at the Bellingham Food Bank. She said she has been running the project for seven seasons.
Raider said that although she is the only staff member working on the project, she is able to serve the Bellingham community because of the work of many volunteers and mentors who support her in the process. She said many of them have been coming back year after year to help.
“I love my job,” Raider said. “Really at the heart of the Garden Project is extending kindness and offering a way for community to do that as well.”
The Garden Project gives low-income Bellingham residents the resources to build and sustain their own gardens free of charge, according to the Bellingham Food Bank website. The goal of the project is to increase access to fresh, healthy food for Bellingham residents at a low cost, Raider said.
According to the Bellingham Food Bank, the Garden Project builds 25 raised-bed 4’ by 8’ gardens each year. These are given to recipients who have an interest in growing organic produce for themselves and their families.
The food bank’s work doesn’t stop there either.
In addition to the garden beds, recipients receive free resources for two years. Those include organic seeds, plant starts, tools, a growing guide, a seasonal newsletter, educational workshops and an optional gardening mentor.
While the educational workshops are part of the requirements to become a garden recipient, Raider said they are packed with good information on the basics of cultivating healthy, organic produce in the Pacific Northwest. The first workshop is also where folks get to select what kind of seeds they want to grow.
“I want everyone to have adequate information so they are going to be successful in growing their own food using organic practices,” Raider said.
Raider said garden mentors are an optional resource dependent on whether the recipient has had prior gardening experience or if they are simply in need of support.
“The role of the mentor primarily is to provide encouragement and information around organic gardening,” Raider said.
As far as the application process goes, Raider said there are a few requirements in order to be eligible.
First, one must be considered as low-income. According to Raider, being a low-income resident is based upon federal poverty guidelines and changes every year. Second, the attendance of the two educational workshops provided and third, a residential mailing address within Bellingham city limits.
The application also stresses the importance of willingness to tend one’s garden throughout the season. Homeowners as well as renters are encouraged to apply, Raider said. However, renters must get their landlord’s approval first.
Raider said recruitment for applicants starts in February of each year.
In addition to constructing 25 gardens a year, the Garden Project also supports two different transitional housing facilities in town, one for women and one for women with children, she said.
The project provides the housing facilities with a group garden, where residents share garden beds and garden cooperatively, she said.
Raider said with the gardens in the housing facilities, the project helps to support somewhere between 60 and 65 households each year.
“I definitely think that the program’s been successful,” Raider said.
According to Raider, the feedback forms the project receives each year have been overwhelmingly positive.
If the demand for gardens stays high, that praise isn’t going anywhere.
“We don’t measure our success on how many pounds people grow at all,” Raider said. “It’s exposing people, it’s exposing their kids, it’s exposing their neighbor- to growing your own food at home.”