Recent reporting in Salish Current has traced ongoing efforts by numerous local producers, advocates, nonprofits and governments to strengthen Northwest Washington’s food system to address hunger:
- a state grant program that provides locally grown produce to food banks
- how the COVID shutdown accelerated links between farmers and people experiencing food insecurity.
Even broader efforts are underway. Recent work in San Juan, Skagit and Whatcom counties promotes stronger, more resilient and just food systems — something more complicated, but with greater benefits, than relieving hunger in the short term.
The system in place now includes gaps in food accessibility, in living wages and working conditions for food workers, in profitability for farmers, and sustainability for agricultural land. As Riley Sweeney, the past chair of the Whatcom County Food System Committee, put it, we need to see the food system from “seed to sandwich.”
On the sandwich end of the continuum, all residents need access to nutritious food. Now, new local food plans in various stages of development and implementation reach beyond that, to how farmers get the seeds and who plants and cultivates them; how food is harvested, distributed and processed; and how it is delivered, sold, cooked and served.
A system needing repair
Eve Rivera, an operations specialist at Bellingham Food Bank, grew up in Tacoma. Every summer, Rivera joined her church youth group in volunteering with a youth migrant project in Skagit County. Her dad’s family included migrant farmworkers in California, so supporting migrant farmworkers resonated. Even as a teenager, Rivera recognized the “contradiction in the insecurity [and] instability of the working conditions and living conditions of farmworkers when they are the ones who supply your food but often are the most food insecure.”
The people who handle the region’s food need help getting enough of it for their families. Roughly half the clientele at Helping Hands Food Bank of Sedro-Woolley work in the food industry, including grocery stores, according to Rebecca Skrinde, CEO of the organization.
Several areas of Skagit and Whatcom counties are designated as food deserts. The classification is determined by distances to grocery stores — one mile in urban areas, 10 miles in rural settings — as well as access to vehicles or public transportation. Food deserts do not meet residents’ food needs and indicate a system needing repair.
Labor conditions and wages can be exploitative in agricultural and food service sectors, where workers may face wage theft, unsafe conditions, abuse and exploitation, Sweeney said.
Despite some of the best remaining farmland in Western Washington, many would-be farmers locally face barriers to land access and other resources, and, once established, rising costs impacted by international markets.
These interlocking and compounding situations require a holistic vision that then must be divided into specific steps, each of which requires planning, funding and political will.
Faults in the system
Recent catastrophes have made the food system and its faults much more visible.
“The pandemic and the war in Ukraine, especially in terms of agriculture and food systems [and] infrastructure, pointed out how fragile it can be in in light of catastrophic events,” said Mike Peroni, executive director of Northwest Agriculture Business Center (NABC), an organization based in Mount Vernon that works with producers across Western Washington. Such crises help people see themselves within food systems, said Peroni. They also help reprioritize work to strengthen these systems.
Civic pressure also helps.
Whatcom Food Network, founded in 2010, worked for years developing relationships and collaborating with many participants across food sectors. The network produced periodic community food assessments but recognized they needed something more to turn data into action.
Sweeney drafted an ordinance the county council subsequently approved that created the Whatcom County Food System Committee. This step is more formal than efforts in Skagit and San Juan counties, the latter of which is not connected formally to county government.
In each county, advocates and representatives from across the food system collaborated to survey their communities and identify opportunities, resources and gaps. These groups published their assessments and then developed plans to guide future work.
These reports represent hundreds of hours of work gathering data and refining visions of a better-fed region. [Ed.: See report links below for details.]
By sharing these plans, advocates hope to drive change among the numerous organizations and businesses — from farms and grocery stores to government agencies and nonprofits — that must plan for their futures.
“It is a collective action model,” said Kristen Ekstran, a community health analyst with Skagit County’s public health department and a facilitator with the county’s Population Health Trust, which took the lead in creating the Food Security Report. The idea is that these reports, by pointing “our eyes towards the same issues … and strategizing for a common vision … set the context for the community being able to come together around a common set of challenges.”
All the organizations familiar with these priorities can use it to guide funding or staffing or planning priorities. In time, these individual actions can build collective impact.
Caitlin Leck, who is the coordinator for the San Juan County Food System Team sees the team’s plan in similar terms. “We’re hoping that this document that we are co-creating at a county level can be a reference point for each organization as they do their strategic planning,” said Leck. For example, Leck also serves on the Orcas Food Co-op board of directors and noted that the board can link to the county food system plan when it updates the co-op’s strategic plan this year.
Even with direction, progress does not come without effort, creativity and dedication. “Government is hard,” said Ali Jensen, program specialist with Whatcom County Health and Community Services. Funding all the good ideas does not come easily. “To get consistent, meaningful resources dedicated to the food system is going to take a little more than just my asking very nicely.”
“You can’t move a boulder by yourself, even if you’re the county government,” said Sweeney. “It requires many, many hands pushing in the same direction.”
These plans offer a roadmap.
The ripple effect
They even point to key landmarks to guide progress.
The plan for Whatcom County includes what authors call the “Cream of the Crop: 12 Actions for Prioritization,” and San Juan County’s draft plan contains its “Top 5 Winnable Goals.” A newsletter update in January from Skagit’s Population Health Trust identified its first three priorities.
Advocates see these efforts as ways to support farmers and promote equity concerns, which appear prominently in all the plans.
Skagit County set its sights on supporting small and emerging farmers. The Food Security Workgroup that prepared the county’s report recognized that these farmers may look different and have distinct needs compared with the multigenerational farmers in the valley, said Kas Church, a community health coordinator with Skagit County Public Health who is helping to direct this food policy work.
Organizations like NABC help facilitate this. Its work is “grounded in practicality,” said Peroni. That means it provides its business technical services in both Spanish and English and delivers them “with a sense of urgency.” Its primary motive is to increase producers’ economic opportunity, and that can mean working with one farmer or cooperatives like the Puget Sound Food Hub to improve infrastructure across the region, helping farmers and improving food access.
Existing, emerging and potential projects to serve communities better are diverse and meet multiple goals.
One example is upgrading a kitchen at the East Whatcom Regional Resource Center in Kendall, amid one of Whatcom County’s food deserts, that can be used to process food for sale. This $150,000 investment from American Rescue Plan Act funds directed from the county council last fall helps expand existing food programs (e.g., Head Start) and can support community members seeking to develop small-scale food businesses.
Similarly, in Skagit County, both the Meals on Wheels and Head Start programs are at their respective kitchens’ capacities, so a priority is exploring whether they can collaborate on a shared kitchen.
The Fresh Bucks program at the Orcas Island Food Co-op is the sort of program that Leck hopes will continue and thrive. A customer signs up attesting to financial need and can get up to $20 per visit in matching funds to purchase local produce, helping with food access and local farmers. The program “has this amazing ripple effect,” said Leck, not only for those who need the assistance and the local producers who benefit but also as a program where granting agencies and donors want to direct support.
Some initiatives seem distantly related to the food system. Conversations with food service workers who got off work at 2 a.m. revealed they had no good place to recreate. The Whatcom plan highlights the need for all-night recreation spots.
It takes an ongoing, collaborative process to identify issues like odd-hour recreation access that are not visible to everyone. Only by being open and inclusive will more concerns be understood and addressed. And working systemically is the key.
Every part of the system holds levers of change. Food banks are a prime example. “A lot of times, people don’t really think of food banks in that position,” said Stephanie Sisson, outreach and communications coordinator at the Bellingham Food Bank. “They think of food banks as … just a group of really nice people that like to give out food — and it’s true, we are very nice people. But we also have real work that we do that has real impact, and we try really, really hard to make sure that is in line with the people who use the food bank … There’s some systems thinking and some strategy there that isn’t just being compassionate.”
Building a resilient food system with justice will take systems thinking, compassion and creative collaboration. “There’s this hunger for locally produced food,” Jensen said, that furnishes a rich seedbed to cultivate solutions; “everyone is passionate about something in food. I’ve never met anyone neutral on the food system.” The current efforts demonstrate that those qualities are scattered already throughout Northwest Washington.
— Reported by Adam M. Sowards
Reports guiding local food systems:
San Juan County
- San Juan County Community Food Assessment (June 27, 2022)
- Setting the Table for an Abundant Future: A Food System Plan for San Juan County (Draft, December 2023)
See the video “Addressing food deserts in Whatcom County” [3:20], 48 Degrees North