Ali Mediate is the founder of Maine Foodscapes, a group of entrepreneurs and volunteers aiming to educate on local foods while enabling Mainers to start growing on their own. Her first event was a community nose-to-tail butchering workshop in February 2017 and this year, she lead the way in a campaign to help low- income families in 14 towns across York and Cumberland counties install raised beds and become backyard farmers (with ongoing mentorship). We called the FoodCorps and AmeriCorps veteran up to talk about how their gardens grew, what inspired her and how she plans to scale the whole project up next year. (In case you were wondering, Mediate is pronounced just like it sounds, as if she’s going to handle your dispute).

SPHERE OF INFLUENCE: Mediate first came to Maine from Boston as a University of Southern Maine freshman in 2009. She transferred to the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, in 2012 and liked it so much she stuck around after graduation, working as an intern for a program called GRuB (Garden-Raised Bounty, previously known as the Kitchen Garden Project). That program was inspired by Dan Barker, who has built more than 1,000 gardens for people in need and is the author of “How to Give Gardens to People,” and the GRuB model is essentially the template for what Mediate is doing in Maine. Wait, why did she move back? “It felt like my heart was still in New England.”

STARTING SMALL: She came back and worked briefly with the University of Southern Maine’s new food studies program, then took gigs with both AmeriCorps and FoodCorps, which took her to Ellsworth. The latter is a subset of the former, a national service organization that matches workers to regions and schools in need. FoodCorps focuses on the nutritional safety net. Mediate wanted to continue developing a career in local food systems and food, but struggled to find something in Maine after her FoodCorps employment ended. “It is competitive,” she said. And while she’s happy so many people want to get involved, she said there is still so much work to do. “So I thought, why not start something small?” The pig workshop was a great learning experience, and connected her to farmers and helped her form relationships with potential partners, like the Resilience Hub. But she was also on a quest to do a raised bed project. “I wasn’t finding the missing link, though.” Money and supplies, namely.

COOPERATIVE CONTACT: While taking a class in food preservation at the University of Maine’s Cooperative Extension, Mediate met Phoebe Lyttle, another student. “I shared with her my hopes to bring the Kitchen Garden Project here to Maine.” Mediate mentioned that she was looking for a partner who could help with supplies, like lumber, soil, compost and seeds. It so happened that Lyttle works with Garbage to Garden, one of Maine’s major composting services, and ultimately, Garbage to Garden agreed to partner with Mediate by providing the soil, a major leg-up for the project. “A lot of times organic soil is so expensive.”

THE SEEDS OF SPRING: Mediate came up with an application similar to that she’d used for the Washington state program. She distributed it through local food banks and organizations like the YMCA and Boys and Girls clubs, “all of these social service groups I could think of.” The deadline to apply was the end of April. Was she nervous about finding people who wanted gardens? “I wasn’t sure what we would get. But I knew that in those two years in Olympia, we would always have the nervous jitters about whether people were going to be interested.” And applicants always came through, she said. In Maine they did as well. “Within three weeks, we had 33 applications.”

GOOD DIRT: That amounted to many truckloads. Each set of three raised beds (each four by eight feet) takes about 2 yards of a mix of compost and soil to fill. By the end of the spring, Mediate had 21 families signed up for gardens. Their reasons? “I think a lot of people are just too intimidated to get started on their own.” It’s also not cheap to build and fill a bed. She landed a $1,000 grant from the New England Grassroots Environment Fund, which helped pay for seedlings, hardware supplies and the gas to move around the state. The garden recipients range geographically from Brunswick to Berwick and up to Sebago. It took eight weeks to build all the beds. Thanks to Johnny’s Seeds and Allen, Sterling & Lothrop in Falmouth, she was able to offer free seeds to the recipients.

MULCH MENTORS: She was also lucky in landing a lot of volunteers to join her leadership team, from retirees to educators and entrepreneurs who wanted to help out. Eleven of the 21 families who asked for the raised beds also requested mentors, and these volunteers visited at least three time during the gardening season to offer advice on everything from weeds to cover crops for fall. And seed garlic so that the new farmers will have something to look forward to in spring. Mediate was particularly gratified by something Sara Reddick, a volunteer who is also a recent newcomer to Maine, said to her: “That it connected her to people. This is not just for the gardeners. It gives something to the volunteers as well. I think that is a different kind of hunger that we are satisfying.”

GREENBACKS FOR GREEN BEDS: Next year Mediate hopes to spread the garden wealth even more extensively. “We want to have $35,000 raised by June.” She’s applying for more grants and is excited to be part of the Portland Greendrinks program, a group that throws fundraisers for sustainability-oriented nonprofits by pulling together members of community, some generous beer companies and hosting a cocktail hour with the proceeds going to a “green” nonprofit or organization. The location is TBD, but the night is set – Tuesday, Nov. 13.

Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MaryPols

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