Strengthening local food ties in COVID's wake - Salish Current
January 31, 2024
Strengthening local food ties in COVID’s wake
Adam M. Sowards

New connections among local farms, gleaners and food banks have bolstered resources to meet the community’s food security needs; a volunteer at the Bellingham Food Bank preps yams for distribution. (Salish Current ©)

January 31, 2024
Strengthening local food ties in COVID’s wake
Adam M. Sowards

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Regional food banks are busy. The needs of community members have grown even after the worst of the COVID pandemic. Keeping food bank floors stocked with sufficient nutritious food has long been a challenging task. 

“The food bank I grew up volunteering in was a couple racks, cans and mac-and-cheese boxes, and whatever vegetables they could get from the grocery store,” said Eve Rivera, an operations specialist at Bellingham Food Bank who grew up in Tacoma. “It wasn’t that much, and they would run out really fast.” 

When Rivera started working in Bellingham, she saw fresh produce, grown on local farms — a far cry from the scant selection she knew as a kid. “It’s really some of the stuff that I’m probably the most proud of seeing out on the floor.”

Many organizations and people are cooperating in Northwest Washington to ensure that food banks can keep offering fresh, nutritious food grown on local farms. What may be a transitional moment with new systems emerging is the strengthening of the local food system and regional food security, systems that support local farmers and nonprofits while meeting some needs of those residents who are experiencing food insecurity.

Emerging regional relationships

Like all farms, Boxx Berry Farm in Ferndale has evolved. The Boxx family started the farm in 1960 primarily growing berries for local canneries. By 2006, they opened a farm store and sold their own berries and produce direct to customers. They still get most of their income from berries.

Partnerships that help local food banks supply fresh, local produce to clients are important elements in new systems emerging to meet food security needs. (Salish Current © )

“We supply our store with food off the farm that we grow,” said Mike Boxx. “People don’t understand [that] it’s not like the grocery store where you can just call up the supplier and get more of something.” 

Boxx must plan early. For him, nothing is worse than telling a customer who comes to buy corn or carrots or another favorite vegetable that the store ran out. “We, over the years, have tended to kind of overplant,” said Boxx. “We don’t want to run out. We wanted to have a little extra. Finding that perfect line is impossible, so we overproduced slightly.” 

A decade or so ago, Boxx Berry Farm began working with a gleaning program and the Bellingham Food Bank to share extra produce.

The Small Potatoes Gleaning Program was started by a group of local women who informally partnered with the food bank. (“Reducing food waste: part of the food insecurity solution,” Salish Current, Oct. 8, 2023) The group recognized that food banks always needed food, and local produce sometimes was wasted. The program is now a part of the food bank and has grown. In 2023, 226 volunteers went on 112 gleans and collected 82,492 pounds of food which included 53,257 pounds from farms, 16,678 from home orchards and 12,557 pounds from farmers markets.

“We’ve become much more comfortable overplanting, because we know it’s going to go to a good cause. They can use it,” said Boxx. “We’re set up to grow vegetables. We don’t have a shortage of land. We have all the equipment we need to grow a pretty good variety of stuff, so it’s pretty easy from our standpoint to just put [in] a little extra each time we planted and know that it’s going to get used well.”

Boxx provides space and equipment, preps the field and irrigates; the gleaning program and its volunteers furnish seed and labor. The food bank contracts with Boxx Berry Farm to supply several tons of carrots, but the rest is donated. “We like to kind of give back to the community,” said Boxx. “I’m not sure how many . . . farmers really understand the need of how much food is needed in our county to feed people.” 

Growing cooperation

Boxx is not alone in this work.

A key to the regional food system is Puget Sound Food Hub (PSFH). Based in Mount Vernon, PSFH is a farmer-owned cooperative that distributes, markets and sells produce and other products from its farmer-owners in the 12 counties that surround Puget Sound, but mostly from Skagit and Whatcom county farms.

Bellingham Food Bank partnered with the food hub years before COVID to first support Whatcom farmers and then other local farmers. The food bank contracted with farmers for a set quantity of vegetables that it knew its clientele needed. The PSFH does “the assembly, aggregation, distribution efficiently for them from multiple different farms,” said Andrew Yokom, executive director of PSFH for the last five years. “That’s an example of a way that our type of growers in our organization was working with hunger relief organizations” before COVID.

Food bank volunteers provide vital support for staff, helping to unpack, sort, re-package and deliver food. (Salish Current ©)

Before COVID, Bellingham Food Bank relied on donations and grocery rescues for approximately 80% of their supply. Now, it is closer to 20% to 30%, and the rest is purchased.  Helping Hands Food Bank of Sedro-Woolley, which operates throughout Skagit County, spent $40,000 on food purchases in 2019; in 2023, it purchased $250,000 in food and household goods. 

Increased need

Food banks depend on purchases for multiple reasons. Need has increased. Bellingham Food Bank currently helps 5,000 families a week; in 2021, that number stood at 1,700 and in 2022, it was 3,500. Donations alone cannot meet that demand. 

Early in the pandemic, the entire food system was disrupted. There was a shortage of farmworkers, closed restaurants could not buy produce, supply chains were broken and stores suffered shortages People out of work could not afford food. 

The US Department of Agriculture Farmers to Families Food Box Program helped meet the immediate need but lasted only a year. To pick up the slack, in 2021, the Washington State Department of Agriculture developed a similar program, We Feed WA, that helped get local food to local people. (“Connecting Skagit’s food producers and food needs,” Salish Current, Jan. 15, 2024). That program will end in June 2025.

As the increasing use of food banks demonstrates, none of these programs have solved the problem of food insecurity. However, the experiences have strengthened relationships between food banks and local farmers and made the work of distributing food to those in need more efficient.

Stabilizing the system

The PSFH has played a critical role in these and other programs. PSFH grew quickly in these years. Opportunities came its way to improve resiliency in local supply chains and to put local food into hunger relief. As those funding opportunities fade away, the food hub, food banks and farmers must adapt, a process they are all figuring out together.

The farmer-owners of the food hub want to be part of the solution. Yokom said farmers would “love to see the funding be available to supply that need with locally grown, healthy, nutritious food.” This would be better than previous programs that relied on commodities grown all over the country and beyond.  

“It’s been very strengthening for our communities to have that kind of shorter supply chain, tighter value chain, from our local producers to the people in the same communities who might be experiencing hunger,” said Yokom.

Keeping food local, through shorter supply chains, also means producers keep more money that can then be reinvested locally. Food bank clients receive fresher food.

New connections with local farms and gleaners are helping to stabilize local agriculture as well as supply food banks with fresh, local produce — and helping food bank staff and volunteers meet a growing need for food among the community. (Salish Current ©)

The Bellingham Food Bank understands its clients value this. “People get really excited when we have local farms feature or just any sort of products that they know is local, is organic and harvested by volunteers,” said Rivera. 

In addition to gleaning, the Bellingham Food Bank buys fresh, local produce through contracts and agreements with local farmers. 

“Because we have connections to actually give the food out to the community very efficiently and quickly,” said Stephanie Sisson, the food bank’s outreach and communication coordinator, “it’s easy for us. Because we have those connections in the community, it brings value to stabilizing local agriculture.”

Contracts, which some grants require, set a price for a fixed amount of produce, like the Boxx Berry Farm’s carrots. Pre-season agreements can be flexible. For instance, a farmer might be able to substitute part of a corn crop that did not yield as much as agreed upon with broccoli or cauliflower. This especially helps small farms, like those at Viva Farms in Skagit County, a training program and incubator program designed to serve under-resourced farmers.

Working through local relationships also makes it easier to see the consequences of prices. Rivera said that the Bellingham Food Bank is “taking the lead and being a model of paying a fair, very fair price for what it actually costs to grow.” Grocery stores often do not pay farmers what it costs to grow food and pay a fair wage to farmworkers. 

“There’s a point in the season where we might be paying $7 a pint for berries, but we’re happy to do it because we know that that is the true cost of what it costs to get those berries to our food bank,” Rivera said. “And that’s going to support those farmers to be able to maintain their livelihood and keep working with us in the future.” 

COVID disrupted local food systems but also accelerated some positive trends in regional farming and hunger relief. What is developing may be an emergency food system with stronger connections in the community, demonstrating how food can be an agent of change.

— Reported by Adam M. Sowards

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