Alumnus of the Month – Jill Kuehler

Inspired by summers spent in her grandmother’s garden digging for worms, Jill still cannot keep the dirt out from under her fingernails. While in the Peace Corps in Guatemala she helped a rural elementary school install a garden that continues to provide food for school lunches. It was during this period of service that Jill developed her passion and commitment for connecting children with their food source.

Before becoming the executive director of Friends of Zenger Farm (FZF), Jill managed the Lents International Farmers Market (LIFM), a program of FZF, for two seasons. In addition to the LIFM, she also directed the Sauvie Island Center, a Portland nonprofit organization that teaches children about farms, the food they grow, and the landscape in which they exist. Previously, she spent two years as the Wellness Coordinator at Abernethy Elementary, developing a model wellness program centered on the school’s Scratch Kitchen and Garden of Wonders where students learn to grow, prepare, and eat good food.

Jill was recently elected to the Board of the East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District, a unit of local government serving Multnomah County East of the Willamette River that works toward keeping water clean, conserving water, and keeping soil healthy.


How did you transition into the field after your graduate studies?

With experience in both environmental education and sustainable agriculture, I entered my graduate program knowing I wanted to merge these two passions. The GSE gave me the flexibility to design my education to build my skills in both areas. Not only did the professors help guide my education, but my peers also inspired and encouraged me in my professional development.

While earning my degree, I had a graduate assistant position working with school garden program development. Upon graduation, I was offered a job continuing the work I started while in school. My professional career continues to build from the network of peers I developed while in the GSE.

What has proven to be the most useful thing you learned while at the GSE?

The program was excellent about connecting students to the community. I quickly developed a network of professional peers and gained hands-on skills that continue to serve my personal and professional development.

What accomplishment in your career are you most proud of?

I managed the Lents International Farmers Market for two seasons. The LIFM has the dual goal of providing a low-income neighborhood with access to healthy food and providing a place for immigrant farmers to sell what they grow. As a way of providing more neighbors with affordable, fresh produce, we started a food stamp match program. When customers come to the market and use their food stamps, we match it, dollar for dollar. For example, if someone wants to put $5 on their food stamp card, we will give them $10 in tokens to spend at the market. The program is supported by New Seasons Market and Bob’s Red Mill, and over the past three seasons over $7,000 food stamp dollars have been matched. Since we started the program, six other Portland area markets have started their own match programs, providing underserved Portlanders with access to healthy food.

The GSE strives to make an impact on our community through the work of our students, faculty, and alumni. What does the term “impact on the community” mean to you?

I believe it is our duty as citizens to give back to our community. The fact that the GSE has the goal of striving to make an impact on the community is what originally attracted me to the program. Through my work and my volunteer service I try and make my community a better place, one where all people can equally thrive. I recently became a new mom and “impact on the community” has taken on a whole new meaning as I try and build a better world for Baby Charly and her friends to inherit.

How do you try to incorporate this concept into your daily work?

At Zenger Farm we strive to improve the food security in outer SE Portland. One program we started is Healthy Eating on a Budget, which is providing workshops on how to shop for and prepare simple healthy meals on a limited budget. Not only has the program reached over 200 underserved families, it has created networks of residents sharing recipes and shopping together. We believe building these networks will allow people to learn from each other and have the tools to impact their own communities.

Did you have a favorite course, professor, or project while at the GSE?

Toby Hemenway taught a course on permaculture design. What I learned from Toby has made a lasting impact on my daily life. Toby not only teaches about creating sustainable communities but also what individuals can do in their own homes, in their own backyards. With skills I gained in Toby’s class I can now walk out into my backyard and harvest the herbs, fruits, and vegetables to supplement my family’s meals.

What advice would you give currently enrolled or recently graduated students?

Take advantage of Portland! So much wonderful work is happening in this town and the GSE really encourages students to become immersed in it. Graduate school allows students a time of exploration to discover skills and decide on a professional path and the best education is getting involved in the community, in on-the-ground projects.

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