“The charitable food system is vital for food access for vulnerable people in every community in the United States. Most individuals and their families accessing food pantries and other charitable food programs are food insecure, meaning there is an uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods. Food insecurity is related to poor nutrition and many other negative health outcomes. Some of these health outcomes include poor physical, cognitive, and socio-emotional development among children and chronic health conditions, including diabetes, hypertension, and obesity among adults.”

— Diana Aviv, CEO, Feeding America

It wasn’t that long ago when lines a block long stretched outside Yakima food banks. Thankfully, when there is hunger and economic vulnerability, food banks get food to people who need it most. Children need nutritious foods to fuel their growth, while seniors need them to stay strong and active. To make meals for a family, parents need a pantry stocked with essentials.

COVID-19 made the longstanding challenges of hunger and food insecurity even more urgent. It affected everyone differently, but for Yakima County Master Gardeners, it was transformative.

The idea of a food garden took root in 2020. According to Master Gardener Camille Smith, who co-chaired the project, “2020 was the year of COVID-19. We knew local residents were losing their jobs and becoming dependent on food banks. A few of us got together and thought we could contribute fresh produce and help the community.”

Master Gardener Karen Orange offered a piece of land. An apple orchard she removed in 1996 had become an unused field of orchard grass and weeds. Transforming this humble beginning into a lush and productive 5,000-square-foot West Valley Food Garden (WVFG) took plenty of careful planning and lots of hard labor.

Years of gardening experience taught the planners that “if you don’t control the weeds, the weeds will control you.” In spring 2021, the weeds and grasses were killed.

These gardeners also knew that soils are living organisms, playing a critical role in plant health. What this heavily compacted soil needed was a cover crop grown specifically to improve the soil. Whether practiced on a large farm or in a home garden, planting a cover crop reduces soil compaction, increases soil microbial life and improves water infiltration.

Now that the weeds were gone, a local landscaper donated his time, tractor and disc to work the soil. A cover crop of cowpeas and buckwheat was planted, cut and tilled in. Truckloads of composted manure were added to the mix. In fall 2021, a cover crop of winter rye was planted and tilled into the soil this past spring.

Soil samples were taken and sent to testing labs at the University of Massachusetts for analysis. Based on the results, no further amendments were needed.

Highland Food Bank serves a small rural community in western Yakima County where there is a great need for nutritious fresh produce. In 2021-22, the WVFG team partnered with Highland Food Bank managers to determine what vegetables their clients preferred.

Early in 2022, Master Gardener Gini Obert’s husband, Ron, brought in equipment and created 28 berms, each 20 feet long, to serve as planting beds. Master Gardener and WVFG co-chair John Strong and his team designed and installed a drip irrigation system.

Using steel stakes and cattle panels, trellises for peas, cucumbers, tomatoes and tomatillos were built.

A generous $3,000 grant from Farm Credit Services went a long way in covering expenses.

Trickinnex, a local tree service, donated 20 yards of wood chips for easy-to-navigate garden pathways. Partially composted yard waste from the Yakima County facility was used for mulch.

All was in place.

In April 2022, the team started tomatoes, peppers and tomatillos from seed in the Master Gardener greenhouses, followed by squash and cucumbers in May. Early crops like peas, carrots and radishes were directly seeded into the garden beds.

The results have been extraordinary. So far this year, 3,000-plus pounds of produce raised by more than 20 volunteers has been delivered to the Highland Food Bank. Master Gardeners harvest and deliver on Fridays, and the bounty is distributed at the food bank the next day. It doesn’t get any fresher than that.

Providing healthy food options in a friendly communal culture, Highland Food Bank has been a nonprofit food bank for over 11 years in temporary locations. HFB is currently finishing a permanent location building project in Tieton.

Moving forward into 2023, the West Valley Food Garden team will meet with the food bank to assess their needs for next year. According to Camille, “Developing, planning, planting and harvesting have been a labor of love for all of us.”

Planting a vegetable garden can supply you, your family and your community with an abundance of fresh, healthy vegetables throughout the season. When done right, it can also beautify the landscape, protect water quality and conserve natural resources. Environmentally sound gardening practices improve soil fertility through crop rotation and by turning waste materials into valuable compost and fertilizer.

Master Gardeners are looking forward to using the West Valley Food Garden (Camille fondly refers to it as an “experimental educational garden”) as a classroom where gardening knowledge can be shared with the community. Look for announcements next spring.

And what better way to be a volunteer in your community than to become a WSU Master Gardener and grow food for your neighbors? New training classes begin in January. For an application, call 509-574-1604. All are invited.

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