Monica Zazueta’s fingers dipped into a fresh pile of soil and picked up a tiny seashell.
The local environmental activist thrust the cockle seashell into the air, showing it off to the others around her.
“It’s good luck if you find a seashell in a garden,” Becca Kempton, another local environmentalist, said as she shoveled soil into a bucket.
A huge smile spread over Zazueta’s face. She placed the seashell on a nearby garden bed that would soon be filled with greenery.
“Then that belongs right here,” Zazueta said.
For years, environmental activists have rung the alarm about changes to the world’s climate and fears for future generations. Three of those activists reside in Clark County.
A couple of years ago, Zazueta, Kempton and Karissa Halstrom became fed up with waiting around for leaders to make changes to help save their children’s future. They knew that no amount of luck or hoping for change would do the trick — it would take local initiatives with tangible results to change the paradigm.
“We’ve got this looming climate crisis,” said Halstrom. “And we don’t feel like our leaders are taking it very seriously and that we are going to be taken care of as far as food security in the future.”
So the local environmentalists joined forces to bring change to Clark County, with hope that their efforts would spark change statewide. Their first project was a victory garden at the city of Vancouver’s first Safe Stay, The Outpost.
The change-fueled organizers worked with residents to teach them valuable skills of growing their own food.
“(This project) is us being connected in the web of life. It’s realizing that we’re all here together. I have something to teach you. You have something to teach me,” Zazueta said. “We are not just sitting around anymore. We are not just talking. We are standing up, joining together to make a change.”
Growing together toward change
As early-morning sun rays blanketed The Outpost community, Zazueta and resident Martha Petifer delicately wrapped the vines of a tomato plant around the thin wire of a vegetable cage.
As they stepped away to admire their work, the small cluster of people around them broke out into cheers to celebrate one of the first vegetables to be planted in the new garden.
The victory garden project includes four garden beds that are filled with various types of fresh produce, plants and other greenery like catnip — a popular request amongst The Outpost residents.
The organizers surveyed community members and found out what items the residents would like to see in their garden. They made sure the vegetables and plants were seasonal so that residents would have a continued supply as the weather becomes colder.
“Expanding the garden and the education, it will lift people’s spirits,” said Kempton. “The residents can learn a skill that when they move beyond here, they can take it with them. This is something that adds liveliness. It’s growing. It’s a life.”
Adam Kravitz — founder of Outsiders Inn, which oversees The Outpost —said his favorite part of the garden project is that the organizers aren’t just setting it up and leaving. The project includes continued education.
“We are pretty excited to have the victory garden project with us for the specific reason that they’re really going to stay working with folks and teach them about sustainable gardening and the garden,” he said.
‘An ongoing process’
The environmentalists will return to The Outpost in the coming weeks to show residents the various ways to maintain the garden and how to cook the fresh produce.
“It’ll be an ongoing process of instruction and interaction and learning from each other, sharing information with each other,” said Kempton.
Close to 10 percent of Clark County’s residents are facing food insecurity, according to Census data. Food insecurity and barriers to accessing healthy produce impact the unhoused population greatly, as many rely on donated meals.
“What we tend to see on a regular basis when people do bring us food is we tend to see a lot of starches and carbohydrates and things that are really more filling than good for you,” said Kravitz. “We don’t get fresh fruits or vegetables on a regular basis, because a lot of our facilities don’t have places to keep them fresh or have lots of refrigerator space and things like that. So I know for a fact that when we do get fresh fruits and vegetables, they go rather quickly.”
Zazueta, who experienced homelessness in Clark County for several years, understands the importance of having access to fresh and healthy foods.
“I used to go to food banks and get food where you had to cook it either that day or the next, because it was almost (expired),” she said. “There was food that was possibly not even good anymore, but you’re so grateful. … But then there was the challenge of not knowing how to cook those things … which is why (this project) is happening.”
Beyond providing more food-security options to residents, the initiative aimed to bring community members together. Residents joined the organizers during the garden’s setup process.
“What we are really hoping for is to bring a greater sense of community and some pride and ownership when folks are growing their own vegetables and then getting to eat the fruits of their labor,” Kravitz said. “There’s definitely a sense of pride and ownership and dignity that we don’t get to see in homeless shelters on a regular basis.”
Now that the group has planted seeds at The Outpost, it plans to grow. Zazueta said the group has connected with staff from Hope Village, the city of Vancouver’s secondary Safe Stay site.
They also plan to connect with other parts of the community and hope other people concerned about the state of the environment who want to make a change will join them in their initiatives.
“When you’re with the community and working on something that is bigger than you and being proactive, it closes those fears and worries that you have about this uncertain time,” said Halstrom. “This (project) is about doing things differently, bringing things locally and bringing people back to food.”