Thursday, October 18, 2012

Food Banks and Urban Farms

Erin "Mac" MacDonald, Development Associate at the Ballard Food Bank, discusses urban farms and how they're improving food banks across Western Washington.

This summer, I’ve been introduced to people who are striving to create a sustainable and local community of gleaners, farmers, and food bankers to source locally grown food for those in need. I visited with farm managers of two food bank farms, Mother Earth Farm, and Vashon Island Food Bank Farm. Through these on-site farm outings and in conversations with the staff at Rotary First Harvest, and others, I’ve come to the opinion that yes, Seattle needs another large food bank farm of its own to feed the Seattle Food Bank community, much as Marra Farm and Seattle Community Farm are doing in South Park and Rainier Valley, respectively.

The good news is, food bank farms are emerging. In Western Washington alone, there are a number of food banks leasing land to pursue small farms that they then manage and food banks that have developed partnerships with local farms that donate all or most of their produce.

A Snapshot Of Two Food Bank Farms

Mother Earth Farm, Orting, Wa.

Canyon Little has been managing the Mother Earth Farm for three seasons under the Emergency Food Network (EFN). In 2011, on 8 acres, 150,000 lbs of produce was grown at the farm. Produce is distributed across a network that includes over 20 food banks, and these food banks come to the farm to pick up the produce. The farm itself has been around for 12 years. Canyon took over as manager after his mother, Carrie Little, left to work exclusively on her land at Little Eorthe  Farm. 
There is one greenhouse on-site, which was completed last winter. Like the Seattle Community Farm, they also grow culturally appropriate vegetables for their diverse client population, such as Chinese Cabbage and hot peppers.

King County:

Vashon Island Food Bank Farm, Jenn Coe
Jenn Coe is the farm manager for the Vashon Island Food Bank Farm. They’ve cultivated ½ an acre on land they lease. They harvest 6,000 lbs of produce a year for their food bank clients. Currently the farm grows ten specific crops based on what most people will eat. The board decides what will be grown each season. They also donate produce to the White Center Food Bank when there’s a really good harvest. The extra produce gets delivered when their truck makes its weekly off island run to Food Lifeline and Northwest Harvest.

Jenn says that the farm could grow more food if they had a steady group of volunteers, but being on the island can present some challenges. There are many non-profit groups on the island to begin with, and Vashon has a small population from which to glean volunteers. While there are many farmers who live on the island, they are busy managing their own land, so it is difficult to get on-going commitment from islanders who are otherwise engaged. With that in mind, they’ve started a successful “Foster Seedlings” program. Without a greenhouse, Jenn is unable to start seedlings for the farm herself. So, farmers and other volunteers on the island receive flats and containers with potting soil and seeds. They’re asked to put flats in their greenhouses, alongside their own. It’s an easy way for them to contribute and in return, the food bank farm gets professionally grown seedlings that are ready to be transplanted right into the ground.

Urban farms are here in the city and across the country and I don’t forsee them going away. Indeed, in a time of growing uncertainty and a rise in the number of clients coming to our food banks, it’s time to start thinking hyperlocal when it comes to sourcing our food.

Please check out the links I’ve included throughout this piece, and consider making a trip to visit one of the various food bank farms in the Greater Seattle Area.

Island County:

Good Cheer Food Bank on Whidbey Island. They have 54 raised beds in which to grow food, and they harvest 5,000 lbs annually.

Whatcom County:

The Bellingham Food Bank  operates a three acre farm, and they, like many other food bank farms, also grow with their clients’ needs specifically in mind. Their short video, made in 2010, presents a nice snapshot of what they do.

Clark County:

The Clark County Food Bank operates a four acre farm to feed folks in the Greater Vancouver area.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Packs for Kids

Jessica Wright, Home Delivery Coordinator for the University District Food Bank, reflects on the evolution of their Packs for Kids program.

The 2011-2012 academic year was University District Food Bank’s first time partnering with Eckstein Middle School to provide backpacks of weekend food to students in need. By the time summer arrived, we had many parent volunteers helping pack up food to approximately 35 students each week.  Even with the initial success of the program, we wondered if these middle school students had hungry siblings. We all were pretty sure that they probably did. Thanks to some of the Eckstein volunteers’ help, we were able to connect with some of the elementary schools in our service area and introduce the idea of sending weekend food home with some of their students. Now we are beginning a new school year with Eckstein and a few of these additional elementary schools, committed to making sure these children are able to grow into healthy and successful young adults.

We want food going home in backpacks to meet three qualifications: 1) be nutritious and support growth, 2) be easy enough to prepare for the students to safely do themselves, and 3) be culturally appropriate and desirable to eat. Figuring out what to put in each backpack that met these three goals was a process of trial and error throughout the year. It will continue to be so this year as we serve new students and keep serving some of the same students who received similar items last year. It was a surprise to find out after a couple months of distributing backpacks that peanut butter and jelly was not something that most of our Eckstein students wanted to receive. Was it only me that packed a PB&J sandwich for lunch every day from Kindergarten through 10th grade?

As we add elementary students to our program this year, we’ll have to take another look at what these younger students are capable of preparing for themselves and how much they’re able to carry home. Opening up a can of soup, pouring it into a bowl, and microwaving it for the amount of time it says on the can’s instructions are reasonable expectations for an 11-13 year old student, but not necessarily for the younger and wider age range we’ll serve at the elementary schools. I also had to remind myself many times in the last few weeks that the successful model we have at Eckstein Middle School is not to be used as a cookie cutter for programs we begin in other schools. Each school will have their own set of needs. While it feels good to have a year of the program in our experience file, I expect that this school year will provide many more unique circumstances to work through.

From the beginning of our working relationship with the Eckstein Middle School PTSA, I was impressed with their energy and compassion for hungry students. Groups at the elementary schools are stepping up and showing enthusiasm too. These parents are concerned with the well-being of not only their children, but their children’s classmates as well. There are signs of increased numbers in the Eckstein program, and as we branch out to local elementary schools I have hope that we will be able to help out a lot of families that are under a large amount of stress just trying to make ends meet. Giving these students healthy food that they can easily take home and safely prepare for themselves is a challenge. Succeeding, however, results in healthier and more focused students ready to learn when they get to school on Monday morning.