Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Food Distribution in the North Sound

March 14 Human Rights Festival - Panel on Food Distribution
Seated Left to Right:  Ethan Schaffer, Carolyn Conner,  Michael Frazier,
 Rita Ordonez, and Holly Thompson.  Jim Meyer is at the Podium.

 As part of the Human Rights Festival at Skagit Valley College,  A seven member panel representing organizations involved in food distribution in  Skagit Valley gathered to discuss their experiences.  Jim Meyer  - a Cascandian Home Farm  manager and Community Action of Skagit Board Member opened the session with an explanation of food sovereignty and food scarcity.   Although the various community organizations  have achieved much with regard to food sovereignty and  security, they want to broaden their efforts.

According to Holly Thompson of WA. State University Extension, sixteen percent  of residents in the Skagit Valley do not have access to healthy food.  Twenty seven percent of households struggle to put food on the table.  So there is a growing effort to coordinate the various sources of food for these families.   I was impressed by their ability to provide locally grown fresh produce to those in need.  (The food collected in my old neighborhood back East was all canned or boxed).   In addition to federal money, Food Lifeline (Seattle), and North West Harvest,  there are volunteers who grow crops  and glean crops from local farms (after  farmers completes the commercial harvest) for the food banks.  Farmers also donate some of their crops to food banks.

Skagit Community Food Access manager,  Rita Ordóñez  oversees  the countywide food distribution center in Sedro-Woolley, which provides food and support to 14 county food banks, 6 programs to provide meals and other anti-hunger initiatives. She was enthusiastic about the 2,000 sq ft building that enabled the distribution center to gather enough food to serve 1.67 million meals last year.  The  center brought in 58 thousand pounds of local produce.

Michael Frazier, Executive Director of the Skagit County Food Bank Association acknowledged the many diverse sources of food his organization depends on.  The sources include Headling Farms, Ralf's Green House, Broadview Farms, Franz Bakery, Costco, Fred Meyer, Target Walmart and Starbucks.  Local businesses. organizations and churches host food drives.  They have a fleet of trucks that pick up the food and distribute it to various food banks.  In 2011 the McIntyre Foundation provided a grant for Improvements including a walk-in freezers, coolers, and awnings for clients waiting in the food lines at the Sedro Woolley Food bank -  one of the 14 food banks in Skagit County.  

After our first three speakers addressed food insecurity,  our last two speakers Ethan Schaffer, executive director of Viva Farms  and Grow Food   and Steve Crider, Amy's Kitchen Liaison for Government & Industry Affairs addressed  Food Sovereignty in Skagit County.  Advocates of food sovereignty put the people who produce, distribute and consume food at the centre of decisions on food systems and policies, rather than large-scale, industrialized corporate farms .   Illustrating how centralized Farm production has become,  Steve Crider claimed that 75% of the nation seed supply is owned by just 6 large Agribusinesses.  

 Farm crops and livestock are  a major factor in the Skagit Valley Economy with a market value of $256 million.  The Skagit Valley is rated among the top 2% in the world for agriculture use.  Over half of Skagit Farm products are sold outside the area and over half of what we eat comes from elsewhere. Some of that is probably due to the desire for variety (pineapples and bananas) but it still seems a little crazy.    
 Ethan Schaffer is involved in the effort by Grow Food to train new farmers to replace the many farmers who are retiring and own 70% of the farmland in domestic markets.  Some of those being trained are currently farm workers.  These new farmers are desperately needed as the demand for fresh, local produce grows. More people have become aware that  they are overfed and undernourished.   Locally Viva Farms was launched in 2009 to provide new farmers affordable access to education, training and technical assistance, capital, credit, land and markets.  

We as food consumers can nurture and sustain our local food supply by buying our produce and meat at farmers markets, co-ops and CSAs in our area.  I order my produce from Klesick Family Farm two miles away from where I live.  They deliver on Fridays to my door.  It is very fresh, convenient and most items are reasonable priced.  Potatoes are cheap and have a fresh flavor.   Food that is not sold at local markets goes through many middlemen before it is sold at retail.  The farmer then receives only 12 to 19 cents for every dollar you spend.

The money we spend on canned food for food bank drives would provide more food if we just gave cash to the Skagit Food Share Alliance  because the Alliance buys wholesale from local farmers. 

While I learned much about our local farm programs and food supply at the 2013 Human Rights Festival in March,  I did not fully understand the relationships between the many organization involved with helping people and farmers.  Indeed Holly Thompson commented on the lack of communication among the community groups concerned with food insecurity.  In answer to my email inquiry this week, Ms. Thompson elaborated: " There is the lack of collaboration amongst community organizations that are working to either combat hunger or improve markets for our local farmers. This is why it is critical that a "Skagit County Food Network" be created. This local food network could include a cross section of the  diverse group of community members such as: farmers, community organizations like Community Action and our food distribution/food banks members."

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