Three graduates are growing the seeds of sustainability through education
By Ivy Manning
Photos by Gregor Torrence
Thousands come to the Portland State University (PSU) campus every Saturday from April to November for the Portland Farmer’s Market, rejoicing in the diverse agricultural bounty that this area has to offer. As shoppers shuffle towards the dozens of stalls full of local vegetables, cheeses, and seafood, they probably don’t notice the University’s motto — “Let Knowledge Serve the City” — carved in stone in the bridge overhead. But for a growing number of students graduating from PSU, the motto speaks directly to another facet of Portland’s strength as a great food city: education.
Students nationwide are coming to Portland State University for its unique programming. Whether enrolled in the School of Community Health, School of Business, School of Urban Studies and Planning, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, or School of Education, among others, students at PSU are studying food. Multiple aspects are covered — from supply chain issues and regional distribution infrastructure for getting food to market to the relationship between food and climate change, diet and health, and gardening as an educational tool.
The School of Business boasts a Food Industry Leadership Center, and the Portland Institute of Metropolitan Studies and the Center for Sustainable Processes and Practices both emphasize food-oriented research and education. In fact, the Institute of Metropolitan Studies asks questions such as: Can healthful food be affordable while farmers make a profit? Will we have enough farmers and workers to produce food in the future? Will our land and water supplies support food production and a growing population?
Still other PSU students take a hands-on approach to their food education by participating in the student-run Food For Thought Café. The café uses sustainably grown ingredients, including some grown on campus, to serve food-conscious faculty and staff. They reduce waste by using nondisposable plates and silverware, and integrate their planning and management into school curricula. Students’ efforts to establish Food For Thought Café led to the incorporation of local, seasonal and sustainable food goals into PSU’s overall food service contract.
Edible Portland caught up with three recent graduates from one program in particular: the Portland International Initiative for Leadership in Ecology, Culture and Learning (PIIECL), an interdisciplinary master’s degree program in the School of Education. The program addresses the emerging field of sustainability education and focuses on teaching in the community through projects like the Learning Gardens Laboratory, a student-faculty run garden in southeast Portland that works with elementary schools to teach youth everything from the biology of worms to helping the hungry.
These three graduates of the PIIECL program have put down roots, literally and theoretically, working in careers that are helping Portland to a brighter, and greener, future.
Rooftop Gardening and Grassroots Teaching
“Imagine all this was green, every rooftop with a garden like this one,” Marc Boucher-Colbert says as he scans the Portland skyline from the top of the lipstick-red Rocket Building on East Burnside. “Imagine the amount of food we could grow,” the 30-something farmer says wistfully as he shows me around the rooftop garden he oversees with Erin Alt of Edible Skyline for Rocket, the chic restaurant one story below.
He shows off a row of plastic kiddie pools lining the south side of the roof and laughs, “Leather [Chef Leather Storrs of Rocket] calls these ‘veggie day care.’ They’ll harvest pounds of arugula from just one.” Along with the kiddie pools, large steel boxes contain mini greenhouses and compost bins, plumbing tubes ingeniously serve as strawberry planters, and the edges of the building are built with shallow garden plots complete with drainage. All told, the garden is supplying vegetables and herbs for Rocket several months of the year. “In August the kitchen was being outpaced by the garden’s output,” Boucher-Colbert says proudly. “They can harvest sorrel as early as March and they’re up here harvesting as late as November.”
It is an unconventional way to grow food, but then again, New Hampshire native Boucher-Colbert loves a challenge. After eight years as the resident farmer of the Urban Bounty Farm (now Zenger Farm) and a volunteer stint in Brazil, Boucher-Colbert came back to Portland looking to combine his love of agriculture and teaching.
Through the PIIECL program, he worked with the Open Meadow Alternative School and learned first-hand the obstacles and triumphs of setting up garden-based learning at a school. “Everyone is overworked, especially teachers, so if you ask them to create a program, there’s going to be an initial enthusiasm but it wanes over the semester as people get busy with school or other concerns,” says Boucher-Colbert. “If there is someone there who is responsible for the garden and helps the teachers make it happen, then the synergy starts and it can succeed.”
After completing his thesis on starting up garden-based education programs, Boucher-Colbert found a position at Franciscan Montessori Earth School, where he works on sustainability initiatives like capturing rainwater, landscape redesign, growing fresh food for the middle school lunch program, and teaching kids hands-on lessons in the garden. In a recent lesson plan, his students grew wheat, ground it into flour and made grilled flatbreads. “I’m hoping to create habits, interests, and tactile memories so they can really feel where their food comes from, and hopefully the connection will stay with them,” he says cheerfully.
Urban Markets and Fieldtrips to the Field
“We’re looking to get that initial spark of interest in the kids who come here,” Jill Kuehler says as she tromps past muddy rows of lettuces at Sauvie Island Center, a nonprofit farm education program that partners with Sauvie Island Organics. Kuehler was recently hired as director of a new project that brings kids from primarily North Portland schools to the working farm for fieldtrips. “We hope after their visit to the farm they begin to think about where food comes from and the labor that goes into growing the food we eat.”
Kuehler, the daughter of Texans, who both grew up on farms, knows a thing or two about how hard farming can be. “My mother doesn’t understand why I’m going towards farming when she and my dad worked so hard to get away from it,” she says, laughing. “It’s in my blood, I guess.”
After getting an undergraduate degree in Health Education, Kuehler volunteered for the Peace Corps and taught in Guatemala. What impacted her the most, she says, was the community garden she helped institute in her assigned village. “Growing a garden has such a positive impact on kids’ health. If they plant, tend, and harvest salad greens, they will eat them. They may not remember what I taught them about brushing their teeth twice a day, but the garden is still there.”
After a year working on a farm in Washington, Kuehler sought to combine her background in health education with agriculture. PSU’s PIIECL program was the perfect fit. Kuehler’s thesis project focused on Abernethy Elementary, Portland Public School’s only scratch kitchen, where she later found a position as Wellness Coordinator. Kuehler also helped with programming in the on-site Garden of Wonders, where students learn a variety of food-and-agriculture-oriented lessons.
In addition to the Sauvie Island Center, Kuehler directs the Lents International Farmer’s Market, a joint project of Zenger Farm and the Lents Food Group that strives to provide healthy food for low-income, ethnically diverse populations in southeast Portland. The market provides vendor space for immigrant farmers and emerging small farms by keeping vendor prices low, and it accepts WIC, food stamps and Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition coupons as well. “We strive to provide fresh, local food that is affordable for lower-income people,” Kuehler says proudly.
In the future, Kuehler hopes to expand operations at the Sauvie Island Center, adding a grow-lunch garden, where children would harvest vegetables and make lunch at the farm so they can taste first-hand how good fresh produce can be. Kuehler is also looking at ways of instituting week-long summer camps and cooking classes. “It’s exciting to be part of projects that are new and young. Whether it’s apprenticeship programs on farms or garden-based learning, there are great things happening to positively impact the health of the community in Portland.”
All-Ages Education and Edible Playgrounds
“Does anybody know how many hearts a worm has?” Cori Longstreet asks, as she holds a handful of wormy compost out to five rapt children. Guesses come in from “none” to “about 500.” She smiles and patiently explains the workings of the five hearts of worms. The gardening day continues on the 2.7-acre plot of land she shares with ten others on Johnson Creek as the group retrieves still-warm eggs from the chicken coop, throws rocks into the creek, and tastes spindly yellow kale flowers.
It’s all in a day’s work for Longstreet. “I grew up on a farm in Idaho where my mom grew our food, so this is coming full circle for me,” she explains. After getting a degree in Sociology and Social Work from the University of Idaho, she landed a job with AmeriCorps at the East Bay Conservation Corps in Oakland, where she earned her teaching credentials instructing ESL (English as a Second Language) students using projects like a seed-to-farmers’ market garden.
Soon after, Longstreet went to Portland to visit a friend and landed a job as a teacher for at-risk youth through the Oregon Council for Hispanic Advancement, where a coworker told her about the PIIECL program. Curious, she attended an informational session where former director Pramod Parajuli’s speech made her sit up and take notice. “He talked about how we need to start change within ourselves, then bring the change out to the community. I was a newly single mom and I was nonstop running. I needed change, and the program just felt like home,” she reminisces.
Longstreet’s thesis included work on JEAN’s Farm garden education project, now run by Oregon Tilth. “We looked at the meaning of stewardship, not just for our kids’ kids, but seven generations from now. There’s been a huge disconnect from the land. Kids can name 100 logos but can’t name ten native plants. If our kids forget how to live with the land, how will we survive? Education about ecology and food security is key.”
Longstreet now teaches as an adjunct educator for PSU’s Capstone Program at the Learning Garden Laboratory, a community-based education program, and is a faculty member at Sunnyside Environmental School, where she teaches Spanish and garden-based education. Her curriculum includes weekly nature walks with first graders, a salad growing project with middle school students, and a hunger-service program where the kids make lunch for a local relief kitchen on a weekly basis.
Back at her home on Johnson Creek, Longstreet and her cohabitants are creating a community farm where week-long garden-based summer camps and family-centered activities will be offered. “I love working with families because they can take the experience of gardening home with them. I want to create a place for families to come and play with their kids and take away memories of doing something meaningful. That’s what I’m all about.”
Ivy Manning is a cooking instructor and freelance writer. Her work has appeared in Cooking Light, Sunset Magazine and Food & Wine. Her book, The Farm to Table Cookbook: The Art of Eating Locally (Sasquatch, 2008), explores the edible joy of CSA membership and farmers’ markets.