Island food hub links farms to customers - Salish Current
July 1, 2024
Island food hub links farms to customers
Nancy DeVaux

Interisland ferry transportation makes for a complicated network, but the San Juan Islands Food Hub continues to grow, notes market manager and farmer Sarah Pope. (Nancy DeVaux / Salish Current © 2024)

July 1, 2024
Island food hub links farms to customers
Nancy DeVaux

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Out of COVID, local co-op brings online ordering and local delivery to major islands

The San Juan Islands Food Hub (SJIFH) has established itself within a few short years as a valuable link between local farmers and retail customers who can order online and have curbside pick-up on each of three islands. 

As demand for locally sourced foods has risen, many smaller farming operations have found it difficult to make the jump from selling at roadside stands and farmers markets to selling larger quantities to grocery stores, restaurants and other institutions. 

Food hubs make it possible for producers to gain entry into new and additional markets that would be difficult or impossible to access on their own, reports the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Brickworks cold storage under construction
Expanded refrigeration space essential for storage of produce is under construction at the Brickworks in Friday Harbor. (Nancy DeVaux / Salish Current © 2024)

There are now approximately 40 producers on San Juan, Orcas and Lopez, (and sometimes Whidbey) islands who are co-op members in SJIFH.

The idea of a food hub, first applied to serve wholesale customers, was already being explored by the San Juan Agricultural Guild during the COVID pandemic. A huge need emerged at that time, when both farmers markets and restaurants were closed. The question was, how to get food from the farms to the people? 

All the pieces came together

Sarah Pope and her husband, Adam Greene, owners of Oak Knoll Farm, produce lamb and wool and currently raise 121 sheep. Pope is also market manager of the food hub.

Pope said that Greene has a background in technology and found a software platform that made for a seamless ordering process. 

At that point “all the pieces came together,“ she said, “and it was pretty successful right out of the gate.” Pope taught farmers how to use the technology, and now they use it with no problems. Retail customers were added.

Every Thursday, producers list their available products and the price they expect to receive.

Customers place their orders from Friday through Monday, and on Tuesday the orders are delivered by producers to a location on each island for sorting, packing and delivery to other islands.

On Wednesdays, customers pull up curbside at their pick-up point, at a set time, and receive their order.

Produce orders await customer pick up at the Brickworks. (Nancy DeVaux / Salish Current © 2024)

Partners on Orcas, Lopez and San Juan island provide space where products are aggregated and stored before being transported to the island of the purchaser. These partners also provide space where the weekly distributions to customers takes place. 

On San Juan Island, the Brickworks is the designated place, owned by the San Juan Agricultural Guild and the site of the Saturday Farmers Market. Pope said an improvement of additional cold storage is now under construction as part of the new outdoor market stalls. The stall closest to the kitchen at Brickworks will be for cold storage for the Food Hub. 

This week, 51 customers placed orders that were assembled in paper bags by a group of four volunteers at the Brickworks working with Pope. As customers arrived, they brought their own reusable bags and repacked their orders so the bags could be reused.

On Lopez Island, the Taproot Community Kitchen serves as the partner. This facility operates as a shared-use commercial food processing facility. A new Lopez Food Center located in Lopez Village is expected to be completed in 2026. The Lopez Food Center will include a visible retail space for the SJIFH and is in partnership with Housing Lopez, which plans to build 15 units of affordable rental housing on the same parcel. 

The Orcas Island Food Co-op is the partner on Orcas Island and shares storage, refrigeration and freezer space and helps with transportation. Food hub space is located in the provisions pick-up area, south of the main co-op building.

What’s on the menu?

The food hub showcases products from all the islands: Chinese sprouting broccoli and pork chops from farms on San Juan Island, microgreens and chevre from farms on Orcas, and mixed greens and lemon grass soap from Lopez.

Dana Anderson has been a customer of the food hub since its beginning four years ago. “I live in town and walk down here,” she said. “It’s such a wonderful treat and it’s so fresh!” (Nancy DeVaux / Salish Current © 2024)

Hundreds of products are available, Pope said. Besides produce, there are meat and eggs, pizza dough, soups, pastries and cookie dough.

The Market Manual specifies what can be sold through the food hub. San Juan County producers selling products that they themselves have raised, gathered, grown or processed in San Juan County have priority. 

Value-added producers must use ingredients that were raised, gathered, grown, or processed, in order of preference, by themselves, other SJIFH members, or other Washington State sources who use sustainable farming methods and fair trade and fair labor practices.

Producer members may sell non-food, value-added items that they themselves make, such as soaps and household cleaning supplies. All non-food items must be approved in advance by the board of the SJIFH. 

The board may limit the percentage of non-food items sold through the food hub to ensure that the focus of the food hub remains on local food and agriculture.

To become a participating producer, there is a $250 one-time fee for a share in the co-op. 

Producers set the price, then 16% is added for retail buyers (12% for wholesale). This goes to the food hub to cover a nominal part of the software, transportation and management expenses. 

The food hub accepts EBT (electronic benefits transfer) “because we believe access to fresh and healthy food should be a human right,” according to the FAQ’s on the food hub website. Per SNAP guidelines, only food and beverage items may be charged.

Challenges for making it all come together include coordinating ferry schedules and relying on the frequently-cancelled interisland ferry, transporting products between Eastsound and Lopez Villages and the ferry terminals, securing the use of refrigerated trucks for this process, and coordinating volunteers for fill orders on three islands. 

“It’s safe to say we have the most complicated food hub,” Pope said. 

Yet it’s all working. Producers are selling and customers are buying. Fresh, locally grown food is more easily available than ever to residents on all the major islands, making everyone happy.

By Nancy DeVaux

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