FOOD IS FREE

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Project enlists community to grow food and share the harvest

Dave Thompson, a.k.a. Tacoma’s Urban Farmer, is founder of the Food is Free Tacoma Project.

By Gradi Jordan

Moving from Utah to Tacoma last year, one of our family requirements in our new home search was garden space. A lot of garden space. I wanted at least 5,000 square feet, which is hard to find near downtown where my kids wanted to live. We can’t escape our Mormon heritage, which was good for one or two things, including how to garden for a lot of people and my two grown (mostly vegetarian) kids to feed healthy on a limited budget.

When we rolled up with our realtor on an original Craftsman home built in 1927 – with a filthy yard including underwear hanging from the hedge and a place that obviously had not been loved in years – my heart went pitter-patter. The area, known as Hilltop, is one of the oldest and most historic portions of Tacoma. It went through some changes during the ’80s due to gang and crime influence, however, the Tacoma Police Department addressed the issue on many levels, including building an annex next to the garage of St. Joseph’s Hospital.

The City of Tacoma describes Hilltop as “just above downtown…, a quick and convenient spot to pick up a gift, a box of chocolates or drug store items (although Rite Aid is closed and new business development has been confirmed). You can also grab a bite of lunch with choices ranging from traditional southern barbeque to Vietnamese noodle soup.” (www.cityoftacoma.org/government/city_departments/community_and_economic_development/neighborhood_business_districts/hilltop)

Our home came with two parking strips that we, as the homeowners, have control over. Before we signed the mortgage papers, I contacted the city via e-mail (I wanted proof in writing) and inquired about adding a raised bed garden there, after reading an article about Dave Thompson and the Food is Free Tacoma project (www.foodisfree253.com) and after watching this video, which has more than two million views: www.facebook.com/KING5News/videos/332775024151574.

I confirmed with the city official in writing that I could, indeed, have a raised bed built, so I contacted Dave who also verified with the city we could build six raised beds, which we did. The cedar wood (10-feet long by 4-feet wide) was donated from McClendon Hardware by a generous supported from Gig Harbor.

Dave and his troop, family, and volunteers took about six hours to build all the beds, working like a well-oiled machine. Dave had many donated starts and I took cucumber and bean starts from the family tomato garden I had built with my son in law from our old porch.

We secured a donated outdoor table with two levels to one of the beds with chicken wire and wrote a note: “Food is Free, please leave table” and have had no big problems with theft or vandalism. Taking time to talk to the neighborhood kids and educating them instead of scaring them seems to be working as several ride by asking questions and have learned what all sorts of veggies are. 

One of my favorite, unexpected parts of the Food is Free project is growing huge, green tomatoes. The Hilltop neighborhood is known for its diversity and word quickly got around that the girl by 15th Street had the “good stuff.” Cars pull up or people walk up asking if I have the greenies and the look I get when I let them choose a bag full from both the family and Food is Free project (most of those are still green) is amazing. The stories I hear about how they are going home to make fried green tomatoes, a treat they haven’t had in decades, or make them for their mom are the stories that make my heart explode with love.

It’s not about who has the most food or the most followers. The movement is simple: Set out a table and give away what you don’t need. Gardens always over-produce, so why not share? We feed hundreds of people, too many to keep track of, and plan on doing it again next season.

Another benefit I have personally found with working in the garden impacts several health issues that I have. I basically spent the past 10 years in my condo in Utah. The vitamin D, the physical activity and the knowledge that I am responsible for something has certainly helped with my depression and anxiety. However, I have determined that the hardest part for me in the garden is talking to people. I have a head injury, PTSD and bad social anxiety so even meeting up with Dave the first time to plan the garden was overwhelming. My family was supportive, as was Dave, and by the time we met and discussed what we wanted to do, I was comfortable enough to allow Dave and his crew around my home and work alongside them in building our beautiful garden. Best decision I ever made for my mental health, however there are still days when I have to hide in the house or back yard. Baby steps, baby. But it does get better because gardening is therapy.

This video shows the gardens we worked on this season, with a huge thank you to everyone: www.facebook.com/foodisfreetacoma/videos/356483845227905. I look forward to next season.

With such a successful inaugural season, the Cornerstone 253 Foundation is busy planning next season so it’s time for a Food is Free fundraiser, taking place at the Forum Bar (www.eatattheforum.com) in the Olympus Hotel on Dec. 11 at 7 p.m. featuring a charity auction, live music, food, gift cards and more. Located in downtown Tacoma at 815 Pacific Ave., the Forum is located inside the Olympus Hotel and features a standard bar menu in addition to delicious beverages (adult and not).

The Project needs help meeting expenses and materials for next season such as website and insurance costs. The plans for next season are to establish 20 additional Gardens for People sites. Every entry ticket is also a raffle entry. Please plan to attend or donate so we can continue to keep Food is Free in Tacoma.

Dave Thompson, a.k.a. Tacoma’s Urban Farmer, is founder of the Food is Free Tacoma Project (www.facebook.com/DavidThompsonTacomaUrbanFarmer). Here is how he describes his dream on his website: “I have always dreamed of being a farmer. A teacher first, in my older years, a farmer. It runs deep within my roots and I look forward to the day of fruition. Until that happens, Cornerstone 253 supports this mission. One dude doing his thing, looking out for others. It is simple.”

A short blip at www.foodisfree253.com tells what Dave thinks of his personal passions and community project. According to the website: “Food is Free Tacoma is the local chapter of the worldwide movement Food is Free. At the Tacoma chapter, we promote vegetable gardening and sharing the harvest with your neighbors. We particularly like front yard and parkway gardens. A parkway is the green space between the sidewalk and the street. By building a vegetable garden in front for all the neighborhood to see is a statement that you are taking your own food security in your own hands. It will cause conversations between neighbors. People will watch and find themselves watching for the miracle of life. And by putting up a sharing table, neighbors now have a reason to congregate and communicate with each other. This builds strong community and safer neighborhoods. This year at the Project we expanded outward and established 14 front yard and parkway gardens, all with sharing tables. All the produce from these gardens will be shared with the neighborhood. 

These gardens are spread throughout the city and the goal is to have a sharing table in all the Tacoma neighborhoods, a place where people can share their harvest and meet their neighbors.” 

Another part of the Project is that Dave volunteers as a branch leader for the Harvest Pierce County Gleaning Project, which encompasses the east and the south end of Tacoma. 

He leads a team as they glean fruit trees and grape vines for fruit that would otherwise rot on the ground, which is all then donated back to the community at the Food is Free tables. 

There are now chapters in Tacoma, Spokane, Olympia, and Portland as of 2019 with big plans for 2020.

Gradi Jordan is a mom, cannabis job connector, marijuana curator, edible creator, writer and educator. Learn more about her and her work at https://pinkboots420.com.

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