Our brief green season is upon us. If you’re eager to celebrate at one of the farmers markets, don’t forget the one that supports the growth of more than vegetables.
The West Central Marketplace officially opened for the season Tuesday, in its new spot on the welcoming grass of A.M. Cannon Park. It’s part of Project Hope, the nonprofit that uses soil and seeds to teach job skills, money management, gardening and other life lessons to kids from difficult backgrounds in the West Central and Emerson Garfield neighborhoods, where poverty and its attendant problems are prevalent.
It’s a win-win-win-win-win situation.
“I feel like there are a lot of programs that just put Band-Aids on problems,” said Kate Burke, a Project Hope board member. “This is a way to actually fix a problem, rather than putting Band-Aids on it.”
The market has a handful of vendors, with a goal of 10 by year’s end. The main one is Riverfront Farm, the Project Hope urban farming initiative. Riverfront Farm has seven urban farms spread through West Central, beautifying empty lots; some of the kids work on the farm team, and others on the market team. A smaller group does lawn care projects.
On Tuesday, Riverfront Farm’s booth offered a range of vegetables that would be at home at any farmers market: lettuce, kale, herbs, turnips, rhubarb … At one point, a woman approached the booth, looking for the “Project Hope kids.” She’d brought a bag stuffed with lavender from her garden; she wanted to donate it for them to sell.
The market feeds different needs. The young people need the work and the knowledge. The empty lots need the brightening green of the gardens. And those who live in West Central – especially those with limited transportation – need more access to fresh, healthy food.
“West Central’s a food desert,” said Emily Dufault, who was working a booth run by The Porch Garden project, an urban farming effort similar to Project Hope’s. “This is the only farmers market in the neighborhood.”
This promises to be an auspicious year for Project Hope. Started in 2006 by West Central stalwarts Pat and Connie Malone, it’s building real momentum – this year it hired its first employees, executive director Joel Williamson and a yet-to-be hired operations manager. It has expanded the number of urban farms, and the market has moved from a parking lot to A.M. Cannon, where organizers hope to draw more vendors and customers, said Shannon Kelly, market manager.
“This is just a much better, friendlier location,” she said.
Like several people, Kelly came to Project Hope from Whitworth University, where she recently graduated. She was a Project Hope intern as a Whitworth student a couple of years ago; this year, she’s overseeing the market.
Twenty-five kids are working in the program this year. Each works around 15 hours per week; they are paid on a sliding scale, based on age, hours and years in the program. Several youths on the market team staffed the booth Tuesday, and some are also working the booth at the Perry Street farmers market on Thursdays.
Angelique Rios is a 14-year-old in her first year in the program; she’s eager to continue learning bookkeeping and other marketing skills associated with selling the produce. Mica Jones is a 15-year-old in his third year with Project Hope; he says he values learning how to raise his own food, and overcoming his nervousness and difficulty in speaking with others.
“I love it,” he said. “It’s a great program.”
The lessons of Riverfront Farms have spread to his own home.
“I have a vegetable garden and a flower garden I take care of,” he said.
The word sustainable is much-overused these days, but there is a genuinely regenerative quality to the cycles that Project Hope is fueling – the cycles of knowledge, of food, of community, of work, of hope.
Burke, the board member, said one of the benefits of the program is that as the young people learn skills, they are able to feed that knowledge back to the even younger ones.
“We’re trying to teach the kids to teach the kids,” she said. “To keep that cycle going.”