Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Nurturing Laramie’s Local Food System

Firehole Canyon, WY
Wyoming is our least populous state.  As we tented at Firehole Canyon and crossed southern Wyoming on Interstate 80, we saw vast views of sparsely-populated, high, wind-swept, dry country. 

How do things grow here?

Imagine our delight when we arrived in Laramie to find the LaBonte Community Garden, the most beautiful and lush community garden we’ve yet encountered. Wandering on the freshly wood-chip covered paths through the garden, as many Laramie residents do each day, we saw about 16 neat plots of various sizes. There were even 2 crescent-shaped plots arranged outside a beautiful mature tree. A large L-shaped portion housed the Children’s Garden, complete with butterfly garden and small greenhouse.
LaBonte Community Garden, Laramie, WY

The garden was proud with a huge variety of produce from asparagus to zucchini, and just about everything in between. We saw beans, beets, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts; cabbage, carrots, chard, corn, and cucumbers; kale, lettuce, mustard greens, onions, peas, potatoes, tomatoes, squash, strawberries, sunflowers, and a few things we couldn’t identify precisely, although it was very clear that they weren’t weeds. Oh, and there were plenty of flowers, too.

Gayle Woodsum soon arrived to tell us the story of this garden.  Gayle is a community organizer who heads a project called Feeding Laramie Valley.  This project is a loose coalition of groups involved in the lively sustainable foods movement in Laramie and the surrounding Albany County.  Laramie Local Foods hosts an interesting set of workshops and resources for people interested in eating local, growing their own food, and creating a sustainable local food system, and Laramie Mainstreet hosts the Laramie Farmers Market. 
Gayle Woodsum

But starting the LaBonte Outdoor Learning Center and Community Garden last summer required a large effort from many sources.  Laramie Rivers Conservation District education coordinator Trish Penny, who runs outdoor learning classes for children at the park in the summer, wanted a full-fledged teaching garden.  Trish worked with the Laramie Parks and Recreation Department and the Laramie City Council to obtain permission to locate the garden in this city park and to work out all the details of garden size and layout, plot steward agreements, and legal releases.   

Once the garden was approved, funding from the city, local businesses, and grants enabled fencing, a shed, and a small greenhouse to be constructed.  The Laramie Garden Club provided top soil, and the University of Wyoming’s Student Farm ACRES provided compost.  Dozens of volunteers came together to rip sod and lay the new soil.  The Wyoming State Forestry Department provided apple, plum and cherry trees.  The Laramie Beautification Committee provided an ADA accessible pathway through the garden. 

Gardening in Laramie is challenging.  The growing season is very short (only 51 days), the rainfall is scarce, and the temperature shifts are extreme due to high altitude (7200 feet).  We were told that experienced gardeners here say, “Every year gardening in Laramie is an experiment.”   At the LaBonte Garden, mentors help newer gardeners plant and tend their plots successfully.

Feeding Laramie Valley coordinates many other projects in addition to the LaBonte Community Garden.  Gayle told us about helping to establish several other gardens, including a “production garden” and a community garden at the First United Methodist Church.  Feeding Laramie Valley also makes sure that excess produce from these gardens and the Farmers’ Market is distributed to food pantries, shelters, and the senior center.  Gayle’s role is to loosely coordinate all of these projects, to advocate for sustainable local food wherever she can, and to gather stories about what works and doesn’t work so well in building a strong community food system.

Will this energetic local food movement be enough to make significant improvements in the quality of food in Laramie, to ensure the ability of the community to feed itself, and to provide access to food for all, regardless of their economic situation?  How can we all learn from their successes and challenges in order to better support this move toward healthy food for all? 

Interestingly, there’s a research project sponsored by the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture asking just such questions.  Dr. Christine M. Porter, Assistant Professor of Public Health at the University of Wyoming, is principal investigator on a 5-year, $5M grant entitled, “Food Dignity: Action Research on Engaging Food Insecure Communities and Universities In Building Sustainable Community Food Systems.” 

Dr. Porter and her research associates are partnering with 5 very different communities, each of which will be a case study in efforts to improve their community food systems.  Feeding Laramie Valley is one.  The others are
  • The Whole Community Project of Cornell Cooperative Extension, Tompkins County NY.  This project focuses on providing healthy food and active play for children.
  • East New York Farms! of United Community Centers in Brooklyn, NY.  This project is based on an urban farm that is promoting local food justice and economic development.
  • Blue Mountain Associates, Inc. of Wind River Reservation, WY.  This organization provides health and human services to the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho living there.
  • Dig Deep Farms & Produce of Alameda County, CA.  This farm is a project of the Deputy Sheriffs’ Activities League, meant to provide fresh affordable produce and also to foster a healthier community with more paid employment and less violence.
Dr. Christine Porter
Each site will receive a small amount of money ($30,000 over 3 years) to pass along to the community in the form of mini-grants to support new gardens or other initiatives important to growing their sustainable food system.  Some of the funding will also pay for a half-time community organizer who will document the case studies by interviewing and conducting focus groups to gather the stories about successes and challenges.   Representatives from all the sites, as well as the partnering universities and other organizations will meet at least once a year to share their experiences and learn from each other.

Dr. Porter describes her approach as “community-based participatory action research.”  At the same time as this grant is supporting each of the partner communities to build healthy, local sustainable food systems, the Food Dignity team is documenting the progress.  The results will help inform these and other community food system efforts and demonstrate how dovernment and academic institutions can best support communities in this work.

We think Dr. Porter's approach will go a long way toward inspiring just and healthy access to food for all.

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