Zsofia Pasztor has vision. The type of vision that allows her to see three quarters of an acre of tangled blackberry bushes transformed into a community garden.
Pasztor is founder and executive director of Farmer Frog, a Puget Sound-area nonprofit dedicated to teaching urban agriculture and sustainable farming in Washington schools.
It all started six years ago at Olivia Park Elementary School in Everett, Wash., about 30 miles north of Seattle. The plot of land adjacent to the school grounds was gated and filled with unruly foliage.
“We just really wanted to do a little garden,” says Mary Kate Olson, a second grade teacher at Olivia Park. “But no one could find the key to the gate!”
On a crisp spring afternoon, the now fully functioning Olivia Park garden is teeming with activity. Pasztor sits under the shade of trees describing the moment her husband and a family friend scaled a ladder in the middle of winter to survey the blackberry bushes, which had grown over 15 feet tall.
It was just after the recession of 2008 when Pasztor shuttered her high-end landscaping business, laid off 22 people and filed for bankruptcy.
“I had a lot of time on my hands,” she says.
The mother of four of her own children helped raised two others, and all six attended Olivia Park Elementary. Pasztor noticed a number of families who had lost homes in the area were actually living in cars in the parking lot of the school.
“The kids came to school and felt safe here,” she says. “So [Olson] and another teacher asked if I could help them.”
Pasztor was adamant that the land behind the school could be harvested. “We could feed the whole community!” she said.
“I’m thinking to myself – you’ve got to be kidding me,” says Olson describing what Pasztor saw as the possibility. “But I knew to trust what she saw, I didn’t see it.”
When it was all said and done, Pasztor’s team cleared 19,000 pounds of blackberry vines.
“That is just the biggest lesson I’ve learned – because we’d say well Zsofia we don’t have water,” Olson says. “She’d say, ‘Don’t worry. We’ll figure it out.’”
Today, Farmer Frog has 19 urban farms and gardens throughout the Seattle area. It includes 14 school sites, and five non-school farms at various stages, including a food forest in the suburb of Bellevue, just east of downtown Seattle. The food forest in temperate regions is comprised of a canopy of pine nut and other food-bearing trees and shrubs that grow in layers down to the ground. Everything is edible.
The Farmer Frog team is also in the process of restoring a 145-year-old farm in nearby Maltby to serve as the future headquarters site for the organization.
“It’s a tremendous amount of work,” says Pasztor. “It is a ten-to-fifteen-year project, and I am looking at it like it is 145 years into the future.”
Challenges include once again, wild blackberries covering buildings and fence lines. Not to mention hungry black bears and deer.
“There has to be a solution for every challenge,” says Pasztor, undeterred.
In this case, the solution for the blackberries are about 40 goats feasting their way through the overgrowth. “They’ve been working relentlessly for a year,” she says. Electrical fences will keep the bears and deer at bay.
The idea is to create a community center that includes a commercial kitchen to teach people cooking and healthy eating, as well as classrooms for school youth retreats. “We have a lot of kids here and their families don’t always have funds for them to go to places,” she says. The idea to create a place for “them to be able to just go and have fun.”
“What we at Taco Time respect the most about [Pasztor] is that she has a vision,” says Gretchen Weidemann, director of marketing and advertising for Taco Time Northwest. “She knows what she wants and doesn’t let anything stop her.”
Taco Time Northwest is a Mexican restaurant chain established over 50 years ago in Seattle. Through its Taco Time Northwest Foundation, the company has a mission to nourish the minds and bodies of families in Western Washington. They do this by developing strategic partnerships that provide access to nutritious food and educational programs supporting healthy lifestyles.
The work of Farmer Frog is made possible by grants from Taco Time’s Foundation. This includes the Farmer Frog Backpack program, which provides food from the school gardens to those who are homeless, low income or in unstable housing situations.
They also offer food shares at the gardens, where those who help grow the gardens are beneficiaries, as well as subsidized food boxes and affordable produce at the local farmers market. The various food share programs currently reach about 550 families, from children in preschool on up to community college students.
“We are doing this with and for the community. For the people by the people,” Pasztor says.
The ultimate goal, says Pasztor, is that no family go hungry. Eliminating the need to grow food because it’s needed.
In addition to feeding the community, the gardens serve as a teaching tool. Farmer Frog offers a gardening boot camp for teachers with a crash course in how to use gardens as classrooms.
“There is garden curriculum online everywhere,” says Pasztor.
But if it doesn’t meet specific standards, such as the common core curriculum, they can’t use it.
Incredibly, Pasztor went to great lengths to assure that didn’t happen. “I went and took a whole year in K-12 curriculum development so that I can understand this language,” she says. “If I brought a curriculum here that doesn’t speak the language it is not going to be used.”
Olson further illustrates the impact Farmer Frog is making in the community.
“One of our first graders was in a tragic accident and was killed,” she says. “But she used to come out here as a kindergartener and she loved the garden, and so her classmates were trying to figure out what to do for her.”
They chose to spend their Friday in the garden planting sunflowers because they made her happy.
“When you start something like this you never imagine all the things that happen,” Olson says. That includes families who may be going through crisis. The work of a Farmer Frog garden is more than harvesting food.
“It’s an everything garden – a healing garden, and a learning garden.”
Click here learn more about the work of Farmer Frog.
Carrie Brown is an Area Marketing Manager for The Coca-Cola Company in the Pacific Northwest. She lives in Seattle, Wash.
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