by Carolyn Bick
Despite the spitting rain and smoky conditions, a few hardy souls gathered outside The Beet Box in South Seattle Saturday for a free permaculture class. Tugging down her mask to speak, South Seattle resident and class participant Naomi Cooper said she was there to help give back to the community.
“Like many things in South Seattle, providing resources and letting the community drive change and have ownership of changes in the community is important,” Cooper said. “I’m here today, because I am making an effort to try to get more connected with things that are going on in the community, to figure out how I can participate in the best possible way.”
The class was one of several that have been held since the spring at the Othello-based food and nutrition education space, an eggplant-purple shipping container housed on an empty lot dotted with small, raised garden beds. The Beet Box is part of HomeSight, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving and promoting culturally diverse communities by advocating on behalf of the people who already live in those communities.
But while Homesight has existed since 1990, The Beet Box is fairly new, only opening its doors in April 2018. Before The Beet Box’s arrival, the lot on which it stands had been vacant for 20 years, passing through the hands of several different developers who ultimately did not use the lot. So, HomeSight, in partnership with community group On Board Othello and the Rainier Valley Food Bank, developed the concept and programming behind The Beet Box, while Communities of Opportunity (COO) and NeighborWorks America (NWA) provided the funding to buy the lot and turn it into a community space. NWA provided $30,000 to create the program, and COO provided a $40,000 grant to fund its operations. Community and Business Development Manager Sarah Valenta said the program is funded through the first year, but will need to reapply for a grant two-year program expenses.
Organizers originally conceived The Beet Box as a farmstand, but Valenta said the idea rapidly changed, because there was already a CSA near the site. Loathe to compete with another local organization, the group retooled the idea into one geared towards multigenerational education.
“The younger you start getting kids interested in green things, and in trying new things, the more likely they are to continue that through their life, and you don’t have to intervene later,” Valenta said. “Diabetes and obesity are less likely to occur.”
But the cause of the area’s health profile doesn’t just boil down to one, easy explanation. It’s a confluence of factors, Valenta said, including income, food access, outreach, and access to education. Despite the diverse grocery stores in the area, people aren’t necessarily going to go out of their way to try unfamiliar foods.
This is where Beet Box Food and Nutrition Access Coordinator Emily Scali comes in. She’s a former landscape architect, whose career led her towards edible landscapes, and, ultimately, food education. Hired in November 2017, Scali not only creates classes and programming for The Beet Box, she also to helps people get excited about new produce and food preparation, and teaches people that gardening can help save money.
“Food sovereignty is beneficial economically … and having a bit of knowledge can help lower your grocery bills, help lower your healthcare bills – these are really closely linked,” Scali said. “We have a tool library and a seed library, so all the resources that you need. You don’t need to put a lot of your own money into building a garden. Building a garden isn’t that expensive, but we are making it less expensive, and possibly free.”
All the programs and classes are free, she said, and are created based on feedback from the community about what they want to learn.
But there is also a social aspect to these classes and to coming together around food and communal gardens, Scali said. The Othello community is diverse, and bringing people together around different cultures’ foods is important for strengthening community bonds.
“There are a lot of people that have a lot of different types of backgrounds in eating food, and making food, and growing food,” Scali said. “All of that really links back to the community, and to eating with your neighbors, and sharing food with your neighbors. So, I think having The Beet Box is a hub for people to come together around food and growing food and building our community even stronger.”
Communities of Opportunity member Amanda Macenido said it also helps provide residents with a sense of place and ownership. Much of the feedback she has gotten from the community is that of concern over recent developments and gentrification.
“People are so worried about the sustainability of them being able to stay in the place where they have been for so long. Their families are here for generations, or they’re coming here, and they’ve built a community in the space, and they see people coming through and taking their land and overtaking their spaces without any regard to their lived experiences,” Macenido said. “So, things like The Beet Box where … the team … really takes community input into account, and is thinking about how they can collaborate with other community organizations and community gardens is really important.”
Featured Photo: Emily Scali, right, invites class participants to smell different herbs, during a class on permaculture at The Beet Box in August. (Photo: Carolyn Bick)