Growing Food and People
by Ann Vandeman
Money is a great motivator. We use it to get people with developmental disabilities and rural high school youth outside on the farm at Left Foot Organics. Once they are out there, all kinds of wonderful things happen. They learn how to grow vegetables, herbs and flowers organically. They become workers and discover what they are capable of. They take on responsibility and become leaders. They grow stronger. They begin to see themselves as part of a community. And, they have fun.
These are new experiences for many people with developmental disabilities of all ages. There are too few opportunities for them to have meaningful work and earn a living. A paid job in agriculture offers them a productive and healthy alternative to work in fast food and other common entry level positions in the service sector. Left Foot's mission is to promote self-sufficiency, inclusion and independence for people with disabilities and rural youth through meaningful, paid employment and training in the business of growing and selling quality organic food and farm products. We believe that all people have a right to participate in their community, they have a contribution to make, and they have value. But the supports and services that allow many people with disabilities to participate in work and social life are limited even in good times. Unemployment and cutbacks in services for people with disabilities have left many out of work and stuck at home with nothing to do. Losing income is not the only impact of not working. As important is the social isolation people suffer when they have nowhere to go. In the current recession, Washington's youth unemployment rate of 22 percent makes finding work especially hard for young people, and particularly for rural youth who live far from where the jobs are.
Left Foot employs 10 people with developmental disabilities year round, and hires another 5 to 8 high school students with and without disabilities for after school and summer employment on the farm. Growing and selling fresh produce directly to local consumers are the vehicles we use to teach them basic job skills. The growers learn respect for each other and respect for the land that sustains us. The farm is a great equalizer -- differences don't matter so much when we're all digging in the dirt.
Marketing the produce they've planted and nurtured gives growers an opportunity to build the meaningful community and personal relationships that are so important to their quality of life. They feel proud of their work, and they are affirmed by the enthusiasm and appreciation of the customers they meet at the farmers market.
Learning is a very organic process on the farm. The weather teaches patience and the importance of being prepared. The seasons teach that adapting to change is an important life skill. Plants teach the growers that their actions have consequences, and that they have the power to make a positive impact on their community.
Left Foot Organics operates from Nelson's Farm at Scott Lake, just south of Olympia, where it produces more than 50 varieties of certified organic vegetables, herbs and flowers, and eggs from its free-range flock. Left Foot sells on Saturdays at the Proctor Farmers Market in Tacoma (April - November), and on Wednesdays at the Tumwater Farmers Market (June - October). The Olympia Food Coop carries plants and produce from Left Foot. Consumers can also invest in a Left Foot Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) share, which provides a box of freshly harvested organic vegetables from the farm every week throughout the season.
To find out more about Left Foot Organics volunteer opportunities, sign up for a CSA share or send a tax-deductible donation, visit the website at www.leftfootorganics.org, where you can also find an in-kind donation wish-list. You can also mail your contribution to Left Foot Organics at PO Box 12772, Olympia, WA 98508 or donate through the United Way. State employees can give through the Combined Fund Drive (CFD #0315757).
Ann Vandeman is the executive director of Left Foot Organics.
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