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Activists model ecologically friendly, healthy living

Wed., July 15, 2009

Group oversees farm, stores, weekend market

They were drawn together by their common concerns: the health of their children, cleaning upenvironmental toxins and a commitment to finding safe food for their families.

And in the years since, the idealism that united the small group of breastfeeding moms has birthed a nonprofit that oversees a local, organic food delivery service and grocery stores, a vibrant Sunday market, and now a farm where local food is grown.

The Spokane Valley farm is just the latest addition to the web of programs from PEACH, People for Environmental Action and Community Health. The PEACH Permaculture Farm is the culmination of a decade of dreaming that began on Earth Day in 1999.

Eden Brightspirit Hendrix was an organic farmer working with Washington Tilth when she crossed paths with activist Lois Gibbs. Gibbs is the mom who brought national attention to the environmental pollution of Love Canal in Niagara Falls, N.Y.

Hendrix, who had already done much of her own research into the dangers of toxins in the environment, was inspired by Gibbs.

“I felt like I had to do something,” she says. “I was frustrated as a scientist at that point and I thought, ‘I just can’t live some mundane life.’ ”

At Gibbs’ urging, she started a local “Stop Dioxins” group to call attention to the health concerns from environmental pollution. She organized protests against what were then still plans for a regional waste incinerator and at an Earth Day booth, she met Tara Foote, a fellow mom itching to do something about the same problems.

About that time, Hendrix spoke at a La Leche League meeting including Angie Dierdorff.

Dierdorff remembers being shocked and angry after listening to Hendrix talk about environmental toxins that could be passed from mother to child through breast milk.

“I’d known her for no more than an hour and I knew I was just drawn to her spirit and I wanted to do something to get the word out,” Dierdorff recalls.

The three women were among the founding board members of PEACH.

“We were started by a group of really concerned parents who were just thinking about the kind of community we wanted to have for our children and our grandchildren,” Dierdorff says.

They focused on gathering research on pesticides and educating others about toxins, and launched a campaign for “zero waste” in Spokane. Many of the early meetings were long brainstorming potlucks where they would talk about ways to make organic, sustainable foods more widely available and affordable to families.

Five years ago, they shifted gears and started working more on solutions by starting Fresh Abundance, says Hendrix.

Fresh Abundance has since become known in the area for doorstep deliveries of local, organic or what PEACH considers “safe” foods. But it was always intended to be the way PEACH raised money for its mission: “Creating a sustainable local economy and increasing food security with the production of fresh local safe food and making this food accessible to all residents, regardless of income.”

It’s taking longer to make a profit than they expected, but it’s working, Hendrix says. They hope to begin making a profit next year.

“I’m a biologist. I don’t have a business degree” she says. “We turned five on Jan. 2 … and given that we’ve survived this horrid downturn in the economy, that speaks volumes.”

Fresh Abundance works with more than 60 local farmers for its food deliveries. Not all growers are certified organic, but PEACH privately certifies growers after verifying that the farmers are using organic and sustainable practices.

For the first time, this season, food grown at the PEACH Permaculture Farm has been delivered in boxes and sold at Fresh Abundance stores.

The farm, behind the Fresh Abundance store in the Spokane Valley at 3324 S. Best Road, is not only meant to produce local food, but serves as a training ground for farmers. This season, David Weber and Roze Pulen are the live-in farm apprentices.

On an early summer day, they were working to design the farm’s permanent beds in sweeping keyhole designs. Junk left at the farm was being welded into trellises by metal artist Tim Biggs, some looking as if they were giant metal butterflies poised for flight. Garden beds were intertwined with walking paths so workers and volunteers can reach across the beds.

The idea behind the “permaculture” is that the land won’t be tilled again, says Hendrix. “What most people don’t understand about plants is that the roots go down and actively become part of the soil community.”

That community will be left intact year after year and soil amendments made by rotating crops and bringing needed nutrients in other natural ways. For example, Hendrix says, mulching with nitrogen-rich comfrey returns important minerals to the soil.

In addition to Weber and Pulen, PEACH is working with local groups to bring volunteers and community service workers to the farm. With the Farm HANDS program, Hendrix has coordinated community service work from the WorkFirst welfare reform program, the Department of Corrections and the Juvenile Justice program.

Hendrix says a few of the children who first came to the farm for community service work have become regular volunteers. “That, I think, is one of our biggest victories so far,” she says.

Ultimately, Hendrix and PEACH supporters hope the farm will become the genesis of their dreams to “refarm” the Spokane Valley. The area has a rich agricultural history and was once known for its cropland and abundant farms.

After apprentices are trained at the farm, they will be matched with other land in the area that has been loaned or given to a trust PEACH oversees. They also hope to purchase land with donations and grants.

The Abundant Harvest Farmland Trust was started after Hendrix received phone calls from people who wanted to loan or give their land to someone who would farm it. She says about 30 people have contacted her.

Another project planned for this year at the farm is a geothermal greenhouse prototype. The greenhouse would rely on captured energy to heat the building during the winter for year-round growing.

For the moms who helped to start PEACH, the culmination of their efforts has been beyond satisfying.

“From a personal perspective, I can’t think of a richer life,” says Hendrix. “To be able to dream up a new model, a paradigm shift and then actually watch it come into reality. I am already so happy with the life that I have lived that I feel full and satisfied.”

Foote says it was PEACH that made her love living in Spokane.

She was reminded recently of a quote that they always included on their group’s newsletter in the early days: “You don’t have to move to live in a better place.”

“That’s really the essence of everything that we have today,” Foote says.

Sesame Kale

From Fresh Abundance

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 pound kale (about a bunch)

2 teaspoons sesame seed oil

2 tablespoons water

1 teaspoon soy sauce

2 teaspoons toasted sesame seeds

Salt and pepper, to taste

Mince the garlic cloves. Wash the kale and shake it over the sink. It should remain a little wet.

Remove and discard the stems from the kale and tear it into bite-size pieces. Save the stems for another use, such as vegetable stock.

Heat the sesame seed oil in the skillet over medium-low heat. Add the minced garlic to the hot oil and sauté for about 20 seconds.

Add the kale and water to the garlic and oil, and cover the skillet. After 1 minute, stir the kale, then re-cover.

After 1-2 more minutes, when the kale is wilted, stir in the soy sauce and sesame seeds.

If desired, add salt and/or pepper to taste.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Red Curry with Eggplant, Squash and Basil

From Fresh Abundance

1 (14-ounce) can coconut milk

1 to 2 tablespoons red curry paste

2 tablespoons brown sugar

2 tablespoons fish sauce (substitute soy sauce or tamari, if desired)

2 boneless, skinned chicken breasts or 1 pound of tofu

1 pound eggplant, cut into bite-size cubes

1/4 pound squash, cut into bite-size cubes

1 cup water or chicken or vegetable stock

1/2 cup basil leaves, cut into strips

Hot cooked rice

Shake the coconut milk can well. Pour half the coconut milk into a large pot and bring to a gentle boil over medium heat.

Cook, stirring occasionally, until it thickens slightly and begins to smell fragrant (about 3 minutes). Add the red curry paste and cook for 3 more minutes, stirring often to soften the paste and combine it with the coconut milk.

Add the brown sugar and fish sauce. Add the chicken or tofu, stir gently to coat while using care not to crumble the tofu, simmer 4 minutes. Add the eggplant and squash, remaining coconut milk and the stock or water, stir to combine and simmer until the eggplant breaks down.

Stir in basil. Serve the curry over rice.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Mesclun Salad with Tarragon Vinaigrette

From Fresh Abundance

3 quarts mixed mesclun greens

3 tablespoons white wine vinegar

2 tablespoons tarragon leaves, minced

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

2 teaspoons honey or 1 tablespoon orange marmalade

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1/3 cup olive or walnut oil

Wash greens and spin or pat dry. Chill.

Whisk vinegars, tarragon, mustard, honey and pepper in a small bowl. Slowly whisk in the oil.

Toss with greens just before serving.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

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