Connecting Skagit's food producers and food needs - Salish Current
January 15, 2024
Connecting Skagit’s food producers and food needs
Adam M. Sowards

Jonathan Phipps of Burlington, a warehouse assistant at Helping Hands Food Bank of Sedro-Woolley, delivers fresh fruit weekly to the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community as part of the We Feed WA program, along with a regular delivery to the food bank. (Adam M. Sowards / Salish Current photo © 2024)

January 15, 2024
Connecting Skagit’s food producers and food needs
Adam M. Sowards

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Clients who visit the big red barn off Fruitdale Road housing Helping Hands Food Bank of Sedro-Woolley can receive produce packed at a farm less than a five-minute drive away. 

Local growers receive market value for their produce. When they have a surplus of vegetables, they sometimes donate them, doubling the impact. At the food bank, participants can obtain not only fresh, locally grown produce, but also Skagit Valley-grown and -milled flour, along with other food and household items.

This builds community; as Helping Hands CEO Rebecca Skrinde put it, connecting families with the process. Skrinde sees the food bank as being owned by this place and all its residents, so she wants to support the larger county in return.

This approach strengthens relationships within the local food system, something that is reinforced by We Feed WA, a state grant program that Helping Hands participates in. The program’s goals are to meet immediate hunger needs and seed long-term solutions aimed at equitable, sustainable food systems. 

A growing need

These are big goals to match big, persistent needs.

Food needs once were ranked behind the costs of medicine and transportation, but now rank second behind housing. Food can help people stay housed, and fewer people experiencing hunger can help reduce crime, research has found. 

Helping Hands is based in Sedro-Woolley but distributes food at six sites for a total of nine distributions a week. From Marblemount in the Cascade foothills to Anacortes at the edge of the Salish Sea, it connects to needs across Skagit County.

Food needs have grown. In 2023, Helping Hands put 3.4 million pounds of food into the hands of people, an increase of 43% from the previous year. The number of children served rose 185%. It sends 850 bags of food home with kids every weekend. 

Only about 20% of Helping Hands’ clientele qualify for food stamps, said Skrinde. The rest survive on the edge, one paycheck away from disaster. “We’re the only parachute” for people who experience that one event that upends their stability, Skrinde said. Helping Hands provides food without waiting, without requirements — something not always so simple in other assistance programs.

Meeting food needs in a region of agricultural abundance can be harder than expected. Food grown in the Skagit can be trucked to Seattle and then trucked back to the Skagit, wasting fuel and time, increasing transportation and climate costs, and diminishing the food’s freshness.

The COVID factor

When COVID hit and need skyrocketed, Helping Hands could not find local sources from which to buy sufficient food. It eventually located a food broker and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on food from thousands of miles away. After that experience, We Feed WA and its grant recipients across the state are working to fix a broken system.

When the federal U.S. Department of Agriculture Farmers to Families Food Box Program shut down in May 2021, the state lost about six million pounds of food per month. One-third of Washington’s population was experiencing or was at risk of food insecurity, and the Washington State Department of Agriculture stepped in with what became We Feed WA.

The pilot program aimed to combat immediate need and develop equitable and sustainable long-term solutions in the food system, recognizing that “underlying economic and societal injustices . . . perpetuate food insecurity.” The initial two-year pilot program was extended in 2023 and will end in June 2025.

A bus stop sits right outside the gate at Helping Hands, making it easier for clients to get there and pick up food. It is the sort of simple connection that makes sense — just like getting local food into the homes of local families who need it. (Adam M. Sowards / Salish Current photo © 2024)

In this two-year grant cycle, Helping Hands received $570,000, with $70,000 dedicated to serving the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community.

When COVID hit, “Our food lines, you know, broke here,” said Tracy James, social services director for the tribe. “Getting ahold of food was really hard.”

Originally, grants helped provide fruit and vegetables, but the Swinomish’s 13 Moons community garden could furnish enough vegetables. We Feed WA through Helping Hands is bringing fruits to the reservation weekly. It started serving 30 or 40 households, James said, but the high food prices have doubled the need. “The great thing about this community is that they only have been taking what they need,” said James. “So it’s still stretching.” Now, it averages around 60 households.

Getting high-quality fresh produce is not easy due to limited options, and the program helps meet broader nutritional needs. Other programs focus on children or seniors; We Feed WA, said James, helps fill the gap. James is working to secure and implement other grants when We Feed WA ends. She said the state grant has been a good program. “It really made us think of how to work together with other programs to meet the needs of the community,” she said; it filled a need, and “high-quality fruit has been really, really nice.”

Win-win relationships

Michael Frazier, executive director of Viva Farms, called the We Feed WA program “a huge win for both the participants utilizing the food banks and for local farmers.” Frazier preceded Skrinde in operating Helping Hands and knows the local food relationships well.

Viva Farms is a nonprofit farm business training organization, mainly in Skagit County but its reach stretches across Northwest Washington. “We empower aspiring and limited resource farmers by providing bilingual training and organic farming practices, as well as access to land, infrastructure, equipment, marketing and capital,” said Frazier. Its roots are in helping farmworkers become farm owners who generate a more just and resilient food system. Today, close to 50% of those who are working through Viva’s program are people of color. 

“Our primary focus is educating farmers on how to grow it and the importance of feeding local people,” said Frazier, “and many of our farmers don’t need a whole lot of education around the importance of feeding local people. For many of them that’s why they get into business.” Food banks can be a “substantial market for local farms,” said Frazier. The capital available through We Feed WA can provide a substantial boost to the small, diversified farmers at Viva.

Seeking stability

The program is not just buying food, Skrinde said, but stabilizing the local food system, which is complicated and will require long-term commitments.

When Frazier looks ahead, he wonders how soon it will be until people say, “It was great when we had all that money to buy local food.” It is unclear to him what will replace the funding from We Feed WA after this cycle ends.

Skrinde recognizes this, too, so Helping Hands is tracking this grant by commissioning an economic analysis by Western Washington University. She hopes to demonstrate the local economic impact of a program like We feed WA. Skrinde once used a $48,000 grant from Mount Vernon and delivered $107,000 in value to seniors by leveraging relationships. Helping Hands is positioning itself for even greater effects with We Feed WA. Skrinde hopes community and county officials will step in with financial support to help meet the growing need when the state’s program ends in June 2025.

Enthusiasm and a positive outlook come naturally to Skrinde, even in the face of the challenges. “I have a superpower — seeing potential in things,” said Skrinde. “This one’s exciting.” 

Partners who work with Skrinde have noticed. “They’re in the right business,” said James. “They go out of their way to make this grant possible for us, and I know I appreciate it for the community.”

— By Adam M. Sowards

Read more in Salish Current about meeting food needs in San Juan, Whatcom and Skagit counties:

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