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Sue McGann (left), manager at Marra Farm, standing with Yao Fou Chau who helps some of the immigrant farmers plant their gardens on Marra Farm land. Photo by Carol Smith.

Sue McGann (left), manager at Marra Farm, standing with Yao Fou Chau who helps some of the immigrant farmers plant their gardens on Marra Farm land. Photo by Carol Smith.


Farming Along The Duwamish

Carol Smith

The Duwamish River valley was once rich with small farms that supplied the Pike Place Market with fresh food. The river itself was loaded with fish. It wasn't hard to eat a healthy diet if you lived in a neighborhood like South Park or Georgetown 100 years ago.

Today, though, if you live there, it's not so easy to eat right. Or stay healthy. Most of the fish from the Duwamish are no longer safe to eat. People worry about growing gardens in certain parts of town because of soil contamination. There isn't even a regular grocery store in South Park.

In fact, South Park has been described as a food desert. InvestigateWest, in collaboration with KUOW, looks at how South Park is going back to its roots to help fix its future. Carol Smith has the story.


To really understand what's happening in South Park today, you have to look down — I mean way down there by your feet.

Sound: (Digging)

South Park is smack in the middle of Seattle's industrial backyard. Dirt is where this story starts. And dirt is how it's going to dig itself out.

McGann: "I've always been a gardener since I was about 19 — my brother and I put in a vegetable garden at my parents."

This is Sue McGann. She manages the nonprofit Marra Farm in South Park. The dirtier she gets, the happier she is.

McGann: "So I became immediately passionate about growing food. Have done it my whole life, wherever I lived, I always had a food garden."

Seven years ago, McGann started planting a garden on a piece of land in South Park. She knew the soil would be fertile. The land she was planting was right next door to where the Italian immigrant who started the Pike Place Market had his first truck farm.

She started growing food here because she believes it's one way to help the overall health of neighborhood residents.

Many of the people who live in South Park are lower income. They also happen to live in the middle of a Superfund site. It's a challenge for locals to eat well here.

McGann: "This community was one of the first ones settled when the Europeans came here, yet right now, this community has no grocery store to speak of. Most of the people in this community go up to White Center to do shopping. It has a terrible bus system. The South Park Bridge was just closed, so they're really an isolated community. And they have no way to get fresh food."

Public Health data show people in South Park and surrounding areas struggle more with weight, diabetes and other health problems. In fact the data show life expectancy is about five years shorter here compared to wealthier parts of King County, like Ballard or Bellevue. That's likely due to a combination of poverty, pollution, lifestyle and diet.

Linn Gould is an environmental health scientist. She's been studying public health issues in the Lower Duwamish neighborhoods. She tells me about a Latina woman she knows in South Park.

Gould: "She walked down to the grocery store to get a loaf of bread, but the loaf of bread was super expensive. And she was so mad at how much that loaf of bread cost, she had to get into her car and drive four miles to go get that same loaf of bread for a cheaper cost."

Gould says that amounts to poverty tax; when people can't afford fresh, healthy choices, they resort to cheaper junk food. That's what happened to Gould's friend.

Gould: "She basically made the point that she feels she has a weight problem. And she has that weight problem because it is difficult to access food in her community."

One solution would be for people to grow more fresh vegetables in their own gardens. But that doesn't happen much in South Park.

Gould: "One day, I was meeting with a friend of mine who was living in South Park and she was digging up her yard, and I said, Oh, cool! Are you going to put in a garden? And her response was, No, why would I put in a garden? I don't know if the soil's contaminated."

McGann is aware of the worries about the dirt closer to some of the active Superfund cleanup areas. The Health Department has warned residents about dioxins, PCBs, and other chemicals left over from decades of industrial pollution down near the river.

They advise people to be careful about tracking dirt inside their homes, to wash their dogs after walking them, and to always wash their hands after being outside.

McGann: "We are surrounded by industry."

Sound: (Plane flying overhead)

McGann: "We have Highway 509, and we have Sea-Tac and Boeing flying over us all day long, so there is concern about what's in the soil here."

She's had the soil tested for some heavy metals, like lead. But she can't afford tests for PCBs and dioxins, which are more expensive to do. Marra Farm is far enough from the river, she hopes the dirt is safe. Most of the produce that comes from Marra Farms goes to the local food bank. But about two dozen local families also plant their own plots on Marra Farm land. They come from Mexico, South America, Southeast Asia and East Africa.

Yao Fou Chau is from Northern Laos.

Smith: "What kinds of things are you growing here?"

Chau: "Bean, mustard green, wax melons — but we get very small fruit, because heat is not that hot here."

He says it's hard to get the melons to grow because the climate here is so different from what he's used to. Growing food is important for these families for cultural reasons.

They want to have familiar food. Some even get seeds from their homelands. But gardening is also a matter of survival. Many folks here work for minimum wages.

That's barely enough to cover rent and utilities.

Chau: "Let's say most Americans have $15 per hour, we earn only $8."

There's not much left over to buy food.

Chau: "Only for light, and telephone, water and housing payment. Then we have no money. So this is important for that."

And there are other obstacles that come with living near the poverty line. McGann remembers a little girl who used to come help harvest the farm in the summers.

McGann: "And so at the end of day, I said, Let's fix you up a bag of food to take home. She said, Well, I can't really do that because I live with my dad and we don't have a stove."

This lack of basic essentials is something else this community is tackling. The local health clinic, along with the food bank and Marra Farms are talking about starting a community kitchen in town. It would be a place where families can come together to cook meals for a week at a time.

On an early spring day a few weeks ago, Mara Farms is already buzzing with activity.

McGann: "We're watering quinoa."

Sound: (Watering)

About 1,000 volunteers will come through to help with the garden this year.

McGann: "Yeah, the Giving Garden is 100 percent volunteer driven. I'm the only staff. When I started this job seven years ago, I actually worked in the soil."

Now she has volunteers who do that for her. Even so —

McGann: "At end of day, I'm just as dirty and just as tired, but I haven't touched the soil yet. I just run around and tell people what to do."

And she's watching her vision take root. In a few more weeks, this garden will be a rich tapestry of organic greens.

McGann: "To be able to work a job where I get to grow food and it gets to go to people in need, is really, it's just my dream job. Yeah."

And it's also a sign that this community is nourishing itself back to health.

I'm Carol Smith for KUOW.

This story was produced in collaboration with InvestigateWest, a nonprofit investigative journalism center in Seattle.

© Copyright 2011, KUOW