EVERETT — Zsofia Pasztor knows what it is to be hungry. She remembers needing help paying bills, buying food and taking care of basic necessities for her family.
That’s why she in 2009 founded Farmer Frog, a nonprofit that works with schools to grow gardens that feed students and the community while teaching kids the science of gardening.
The students and parents who work in the gardens get to take their share of the harvest home.
They also earn money to put back into their work and learn business skills by selling their produce at the Everett Mall farmer’s market and through a Community Supported Agriculture program.
“It teaches kids how you sustain something,” said Pasztor, a mother of four. “They get to live it.”
Now, she’s is leading the all-volunteer nonprofit in building a headquarters for Farmer Frog in the Paradise Valley Conservation Area near Maltby. Having a home will allow the nonprofit to help to more people, including those suffering from mental illnesses, recovering from substance abuse or transitioning out of prison, Pasztor said.
Pasztor, 47, learned to grow her own food when she was a girl in Hungary. She and her husband, Zsolt, 50, immigrated to the U.S. from the formerly communist central European country in 1989. They spent two years in an Austrian refugee camp before making their way to America.
In the early 2000s, the couple started saving money as part of a United Way of Snohomish County program. They saved $2,000 and a sponsor added $4,000 to it.
With the money, they launched their landscaping business, Frog on a Log Parks.
“It was a hand up not a hand out,” Pasztor said.
She and her husband earned their living through the business until the economy crashed in 2008. They then found themselves filing for bankruptcy and having trouble making ends meet.
“We were happy to have a shirt on our backs,” Pasztor said. “We’ve been there, done that, get it. So that’s what drives us.”
The idea of offering a hand up instead of a hand out is something Pasztor has incorporated into her nonprofit.
“When we build on Farmer Frog it has to be that same way — a hand up,” she said. “It’s very important that people are given the option to do something for themselves.”
So Pasztor went to work doing just that.
She put in a garden at her children’s school, Everett’s Olivia Park Elementary in 2009. Like the Pasztors, many students’ families were struggling to get by during the economic recession.
Parents, kids and people in the community helped grow fruits and vegetables to take home to eat.
“Very quickly it became an important food source,” said Pasztor, who also works as a horticulture teacher at Edmonds Community College and as a landscaping consultant.
The garden soon got too big for her to handle on her own. Pasztor met Will Allen, a farmer and former professional basketball player, and went to his six-month urban agriculture training in Milwaukee.
Now, she has year-round gardens at about a dozen schools across Snohomish County. She also has projects in Bellevue and Tacoma.
“It almost feels like a movement anymore,” she said.
The garden program works with the science, technology, engineering and math curriculum for K-12 education.
Farmer Frog offers a two-week summer training program for teachers to learn how to apply the science lessons using the garden as an outdoor lab. The hope is the experience will help students remember concepts for standardized tests.
Pasztor makes sure students are learning as they grow. She’ll even let them plant kinds of produce she knows will fail, if it’ll teach them an important lesson.
“It’s to learn, not because I say so, but because they see so,” she said.
Pasztor believes it’s important to pass down lessons of sustainable living to the next generation and beyond.
She’s raising $3.5 million to run the school gardens and complete work on Farmer Frog’s headquarters at Paradise Farm, one of Washington’s first farms.
The Lloyd family settled at Paradise Farm in 1880 before Washington became a state. Pasztor envisions preserving the family’s history through restoration work.
“That has to be honored and showcased, “ she said. “A hundred years later I’m walking the same paths they started on. It’s incredible.”
The Lloyds donated the land for public use. Pasztor is working to finalize a long-term contract with Snohomish County to make the homestead site the new home of Farmer Frog.
She plans to clean up the property, restore the buildings, plant gardens, and care for the woods, pastures and wetlands.
“We intend on turning this into a high-value, magical place that is open to people from all walks of life,” she said.
If you go
Farmer Frog’s first fundraiser for pay for farmer educators will feature live music, games and food It’s set for 4 to 8 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 30, at Olivia Park Elementary garden, 200 108th St. SW, Everett. The cost is $25 for adults, $15 for kids 10-18.