Teen farmers serve up prescription vegetables to Salemites in need

Valerie Schoening loves eating fresh fruit — and as a diabetic, she knows it’s important to get produce in her diet.

But the 60-year-old Salemite struggles sometimes to buy fresh at the grocery store, in part because she’s prone to fainting and falls which can render her unable to leave the house for several days.

Earlier this summer, her nutritionist at the Lancaster Family Health Center signed her up for a unique prescription — a free box of organic produce available at the clinic weekly, grown by high school students on the Marion Polk Food Share’s Youth Farm.

“It makes it so much easier to make smoothies,” Schoening said as she picked up her weekly box, which included strawberries, lettuce, basil, cilantro and bok choy.

The program, called Farm Share Rx, is in its sixth summer of bringing free healthy food to people in the Salem area who need it most, while giving a few dozen teenagers the chance to become expert farmers. It’s modeled after community supported agriculture boxes many other small farms offer, where customers sign up to receive a weekly share of produce, giving farmers a reliable stream of fixed income. 

But at the youth farm, the food is all free — distributed weekly from July to October for about 100 customers through three health clinics serving mostly low-income patients: the Lancaster location, Northwest Human Services in west Salem, and the Grand Ronde Health and Wellness Center.

Youth farmer Denavae Randal, 16, bags lettucs for a CSA box at the Marion Polk Food Share Youth Farm on Thursday, Aug. 25 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Clients are recommended by their health care providers based on their income, ability to access fresh food and having health conditions that would benefit from regular produce. Last year, the program served a total of 812 people, according to a food share report.

The farm started in 2013 and moved to its current 6-acre property on the Chemeketa Community College campus in 2016. Before the Farm Share Rx program, young farmers sold produce at local farmer’s markets. But the sales never made much money for the farm, and the free boxes proved a model more in line with the nonprofit food share’s mission of promoting nutrition and food security, said Ava Ryan, the farm and garden manager.

“It just felt better ethically,” Ryan said.

A 2019 survey of participants in the Farm Share Rx program found over 83% reported they sometimes or often worried about running out of money to buy food, and about 76% said the food they bought didn’t last until they had money to get more.

After they participated in the program, those numbers fell, and the number saying they felt in good health rose from 40% to 52%.The youth farm received $15,000 this year from the city of Salem’s community development block grant — a pot of federal money intended to help with programs to build more resilient communities. That’s allowed them to expand the veggie program to include home delivery for the first time, making it easier to reach customers in the Lancaster area who can’t drive.

Volunteer Julie Earnest loads up a box for delivery from the Marion Polk Food Share Youth Farm on Thursday, Aug. 25 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Teen farmers power the work, with a crew of about 30 high schoolers spending four days per week running the farm. That includes transplanting starts, weeding, harvesting, packing boxes for distribution, washing containers and cooking a fresh lunch for the crew daily. Farmers get a $1,000 stipend for the summer, with returning crew leaders paid $2,000.

For Milaey Xavier, 17, farming is a fitting summer vocation — her name means “garden” in Yapese, a Micronesian language. 

She’s helped her family with their community garden plot but had no prior experience in agriculture before signing up for the summer crew.

“It’s definitely fun. I love working with my hands,” she said. 

Xavier and fellow teen farmer Denavae Randal, 16, worked a recent distribution at the Lancaster clinic, packing about 30 plastic cartons with the week’s selection of fruits and vegetables. About half went out with volunteer delivery drivers, while the rest went to the clinic for distribution along with fliers featuring a recipe for zucchini parmesan fritters contributed by a client.

Both said they enjoy the work, but it’s especially meaningful knowing they’re providing food to people who need it.

“It gives me motivation to do it because you’re going to be helping the community out,” Xavier said.

Boxes at the Marion Polk Food Share Youth Farm on Thursday, Aug. 25 await distribution to the Lancaster Family Health Center as part of the Farm Share Rx program (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Correction: This story was updated to correct the name of the Farm Share Rx program.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.