Sowing Seeds for Justice

The Just Garden Project works to build a just food system and a culture of gardening for everyone.


It was the summer of 2015, and Letha had an unexpected problem: too many tomatoes. “Gosh, I had so many tomatoes, I couldn’t even give them away,” she laughs, recalling her garden’s bounty. “But, mmm, there’s nothing like a tomato right from the garden. I’ll always grow tomatoes.”

Letha is one of more than 200 individuals who have received a raised bed through the Just Garden Project (JGP). Since its launch in 2010, the Seattle nonprofit has worked to build “a just food system and a culture of gardening for all people.” As its name implies, the Just Garden Project wants to make gardening possible for all by removing the two main barriers that many people face when trying to feed themselves nutritiously: money and knowledge.

With one in seven Americans on food stamps, issues of food security — like hunger and the worry of running out of food — can overshadow nutrition. A JGP raised bed gives people the ability to grow up to $650 in fresh, organic produce a year and connects them to where their food is coming from. “People know that a head of organic lettuce at the store costs $4,” says co-director Stephanie Seliga, who founded JGP with her husband, Michael. “But then they realize that for $3, they can buy a packet of seeds and eat lettuce all year.”

“At first, I was very intimidated,” says Shawn Koyano, who received her raised bed garden in the spring of 2015. “But Just Garden made it accessible. It gave me the ability to just try it — you don’t necessarily need to be an expert to grow food.”

“People see a garden in a magazine, and they say, ‘If it doesn’t look like that, then I don’t want to do it,’” Michael says. “That’s why the Just Garden model’s inclusion of follow-up education is so important and works so well.” Indeed, in 2015, 77% of the JGP gardeners surveyed were still gardening, years after their initial launch. Others, from volunteers to neighbors, are inspired to try their own hand at gardening.

JGP starts by partnering with local organizations like South Park Senior Center and Solid Ground to identify individuals and families who would benefit from a garden. And, of course, people find JGP on their own, sometimes through word of mouth, sometimes by poking around online, as Shawn did. “I’d just had my daughter and was looking to change how we were eating,” she says. “I wanted her to understand where food comes from — that it doesn’t come from Fred Meyer or Safeway.”

Then, Just Garden performs site consultation, talking to the gardener about how many raised beds they’d like (up to three) and the beds’ placement. The gardener attends a four-week class series that covers the basics of gardening, from pest control to seed collection.

JGP then delivers the soil and supplies: 5 sets of plant starts, 10 packets of seeds, 1 pint of fish emulsion, and The Maritime Northwest GardenGuide. Then, on the big day, volunteers come to the gardener’s house and help build the raised bed, hammering together the wood and transporting wheelbarrows mounded with soil. From there, gardeners are given an additional class and lots of advice. And then — they just garden. “That first year, I was pretty scared,” says Shawn. “I did a lot of hardy greens — collards, kale, lettuce.”

Gardens are subsidized based on income, costing gardeners as little as $20. JGP is fiscally sponsored by the Northwest Intentional Communities Association, as well as supported in large part by donors. The volunteer workforce has been immense, with 1,550 volunteers tallying upwards of 12,300 hours over the years.

“It’s not a one-size-fits-all model,” says Michael. “It can take on a bit of customization. The raised bed is just one module; there may be a community where a little orchard or a permaculture installation might be better.”

Stephanie and Michael have been involved in the Pacific Northwest’s urban agriculture scene for more than a decade, working individually and together at the intersection of social justice, gardening, and design.

Michael came to urban agriculture by way of the University of Washington’s Community, Environmental & Planning program, which he describes as “urban planning from a humanistic perspective.” The interdisciplinary nature of the program allowed him to explore his interests in geography, economics, and environmental psychology, while a student leadership grant gave him the opportunity to do hands-on community gardening a few days a week in the University District. After college, he served with AmeriCorps,at the Seattle Youth Garden Works, before channeling his unique perspective and passion into his own business, Cascadia Edible Landscapes, in 2008.

Stephanie’s path to food justice started unsuspectingly in college, in Indiana, when she helped organize a conference about women’s empowerment, as part of her on-campus job. The conference’s keynote speaker was activist and writer Frances Moore Lappé, whose words endowed food with a power and potential for connection that Stephanie hadn’t before fathomed. Stephanie was recoveringfrom an eating disorder at the time, and her relationship with food was, to say the least, complicated. “It was this huge aha! moment for me ― all of my issues with food could be solved if I looked at food this way: if food was about community; if food was about bringing people together; if food was about empowering people.

“I’m not going to dismantle oppression by just being angry about it,” she realized. “We’re going to do it by feeding each other and feeding ourselves and nourishing our community.” And Stephanie has been doing just that since starting with an AmeriCorps appointment at the Olympia nonprofit GRuB in 2006. There, she worked on creating a replication model for their Kitchen Garden Project, which, like JGP, makes backyard gardening a reality for low-income individuals and families. “Ideally, I’d love to create a model where you can pick up and start a garden wherever you are,” Stephanie says.

“If a community has its food taken care of, they can have more power,” says Michael. Part of this power is connection and the ability to share the bounty of what is grown with others.

“Ninety percent of Just Garden gardeners give food away,” Stephanie says. “I don’t know anybody who goes to a grocery store and gives food away. The garden starts that conversation.”

Shawn’s neighbors saw her and her daughter outside working in the garden. They watched it grow. When it came time to harvest, there was plenty — and plenty to share. This connection — knowing where food comes from and being food’s shepherd into the world ― helps people bridge the gap — not only with the earth, but with others.

“When you’re talking about commodities, everything’s scarce,” Stephanie says. “But when you’re growing your own food, you’re tapping into the reality of abundance. And for low-income families, that can be a profound transformation.”

Nicole Capozziello grew up in her family’s Italian restaurant in Wisconsin. She is a freelance writer and a tour guide at Theo Chocolate.

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