By Jolie Donohue

With mounting tuitions and the escalating cost of living expenses, today’s community college student is struggling to survive and is often saddled with excessive student loan debt after graduation. At Portland Community College, our students are a diverse, vibrant, and empowered community, but many face several barriers to college success: they might be first- generation college students, parents, or work multiple jobs. 

According to a new report from the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, 48% of community college students are food insecure, 56% are housing insecure, and 17% were homeless in the past year. We know our students are hungry and we acknowledge that the food system in the United States is riddled with injustice and systemic racism as, for example, people of color are disproportionately impacted by diet related illness. Because student hunger and food justice are a priority for our student leaders, they’re finding creative solutions to these problems. 

In 2019, with the assistance of a student funded Eco-Social Justice Grant, the student leadership planned and constructed a learning garden on the Cascade campus. While four other PCC campuses have established learning gardens, what is unique to the Cascade Urban Learning Garden is its central campus location and its demonstration of small-scale, organic, edible gardening. The Cascade Urban Learning Garden seeks to produce vegetables, fruit, and herbs year-round that is all donated to the Cascade Panther Pantry. The Panther Pantry is an Oregon Food Bank partner agency that provides healthy food at no cost to all PCC students. 

Commitment to sustainability and student health is demonstrated in the garden use of compost, cover crops, and all food is grown naturally without the use of herbicide or pesticide sprays. During the summer the Cascade Urban Learning Garden produced basil, cucumber, eggplant, peppers, melons, summer squash, tomatoes, and zucchini. This fall the harvest included chard, cilantro, collards, kale, lettuce, mustards, parsley, and scallions. In October students planted overwintering garlic, onions, and shallots. The fruit garden includes espaliered apple, pear, and plum trees, blueberries, currants, honeberry, raspberries, and blackberries. 

The Cascade Urban Learning Garden cannot solve food insecurity for all of our students, but it is an excellent demonstration of student tenacity and problem-solving. Our goals are to continue expanding the garden to feed students year-round, provide hands-on education to teach students to grow their own food, and empower students through meaningful leadership opportunities to be powerful change agents for a more equitable food system. 

Jolie Donohue is the Cascade Learning Garden Coordinator at Portland Community College. Through her small business The Gardening Goddess she writes, teaches, and consults about edible gardening. Her family has lived experience with food insecurity. Reach her online: