It’s hard to believe that we’ve been in Portland for almost two weeks now. All of us have gotten (mostly) settled in at our community partner placements. Kitman and I are working at Metro, which is the regional government for the Portland metropolitan area. We’re continuing the work of last year’s DukeEngage interns so we’ll be meeting with a lot of the conservation education providers around the Portland-Vancouver region over the next few weeks to collect feedback for the Intertwine Alliance.
The cool thing about this program is that we also get the chance to volunteer with an organization called Hands on Portland, which sends us to different volunteering projects throughout the area. This past Friday, we all left our community partners early and took the MAX over to Zenger Farms to help out with their Friday work party. One of the volunteer leaders gave us a brief introduction to Zenger Farms and then put us to work weeding the beets and “hilling” potatoes, which basically involves piling soil around the base of the potato plant. The rationale is that, by adding more soil around the plant, you give the roots more room to expand so they produce more potatoes.
After we finished weeding and hilling, we got back together to have our first reflection session. Our topic of discussion for the week, fittingly enough, was food and sustainable agriculture. Zenger Farms is an all-organic farm, meaning that they don’t use synthetic pesticides or fertilizers to grow their crops. Local residents can buy a share in Zenger Farm’s CSA (community-supported agriculture) program and stop by weekly to pick up their produce. Zenger Farms also accepts food stamps as payment for their CSA program, which gives low-income residents access to local, organic food. The local farmer’s market (which is amazing and conveniently located by our dorms at Portland State University) also offers a similar program, allowing people to swap their food stamps for anything from fresh strawberries to 100% grass-fed yak jerky.
What I was most struck by that day was just how difficult the farm work was – and we had been lucky enough to be working in relatively cool conditions. I can’t even imagine having to work on a farm all day in, as many farmworkers have to do, three digit temperatures. I was reminded of a discussion I went to at Duke regarding farmworker ethics in North Carolina. Because the minimum wage law doesn’t apply to farmworkers, they are usually paid by weight, and not by time. As a result, workers on some farms not only have to deal with back-breaking work conditions, but have to pick as much as two tons of sweet potatoes in order to earn just $50.
There is always a lot of discussion on whether foods are organic or not, but little is ever said regarding how the food actually got to the grocery store. I guess the sobering takeaway is that, even if you buy food that is locally-grown or organic, those labels say nothing about how the farmworkers were treated. It’s heartening to know, however, that there are places like Zenger Farms where consumers can buy food that is not only local and organic, but also ethically-grown and accessible to both urban and low-income populations.
That said, I think the DukeEngage Portland program is off to a great start and I can’t wait to see what else the summer has in store for us. If the past few days are any indication, we’ve got a lot of exploring, learning, and, of course, eating to look forward to.