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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture

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Going Beyond Nonperishables, Seattle Food Bank Provides Locally Grown Food to Those in Need

April 16, 2013 |

rainier valley food bankIt is no longer just nonperishable items consisting of canned vegetables, pasta, or packaged meals filling the shelves of food banks in the city of Seattle, WA. Instead, canned food is being supplemented with produce grown on local urban farms and neighborhood P-patches. The shift in the food system toward growing local, sustainable produce is carrying over into the emergency food world and “providing healthy food for our neighbors” is now just as important as providing supplemental food assistance, says Sam Osborne, executive director of the Rainier Valley Food Bank.

This food bank is one of 27 within the city of Seattle and is the third or fourth busiest, according to Osborne. Three paid employees, two Americorps members and 20-35 volunteers served over 124,000 clients last year with an average of 10,000-11,000 clients visiting the food bank each month. Osborne describes their clients as representing a “microcosm of the planet” because the Rainier Valley neighborhood is recognized as the most diverse zip code in the nation.

After Osborne joined the organization in 2009, the food bank no longer became solely volunteer run as he developed a more stable donation base. The food bank is 60 percent supported by individual donors, 20 percent city funded  – “our single biggest supporter” – and the rest comes from businesses and grants, Osborne explains. Osborne notes that because organizations “never know what’s going to happen with public dollars,” it is important to have a diverse revenue stream.

“One of my dreams was to have an urban farm to grow food for our food bank,” Osborne says, and he made it a priority to develop relationships with other organizations who shared this goal, such as Lettuce Link. Together, along with the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods P-Patch Community Gardening Program, and Solid Ground, the Seattle Community Farm in the Rainier Valley neighborhood was created in 2010. Produce grown at the farm is shared within the neighborhood and about a third is donated to the Rainier Valley Food Bank; Osborne describes the relationship between his food bank and the farm as incredible.

Cooperation between food banks and gardeners is essential to ensure that  perishable produce remains fresh when it arrives on the shelves. At the Seattle Community Farm, “it gets picked one day and then goes home with someone the next day,” Osborne explains. Another consideration is the distance between the farm and the food bank. “There’s logistics, transportation is an issue” if one cannot get the food to the people who need it, he says. Eastern Washington’s emergency food system model is still mostly nonperishable based because of the distance between farms and communities. Identifying what people want to eat so the right crops can be grown is another important thing, Osborne explains. We work with our clients to identify what type of produce they want to see grown at the farm.

The 10,000 lbs. of greens that the Rainier Valley Food Bank received last year during its second growing season was really something, Osborne says. There were crates of basil, herbs, and many different kinds of leafy green vegetables for the food bank’s clients to choose from. The produce has a very beneficial  impact not only in that it provides Osborne’s clients with fresh produce, but also in that saves the organization a lot of money. “I saved a little over $11,000 in produce that I otherwise would have had to purchase during the growing season [June-September],” he said.

Because of the effect that the fresh produce has upon his clients and the food banks’ bottom line, Osborne would like to expand growing produce during the winter months by using a greenhouse, but the lack of volunteers is a concern, he admits. However, the amount of food required to support his food bank requires the support of many smaller operations. The Rainier Valley Food Bank also receives produce from Seattle University’s Urban Farm and numerous P-patches like the Bradner Garden, and the food bank “always look[s] forward to [Booker T. Brown’s] arrival,” Osborne explained. Brown, a local farmer in Kent, delivers 200-300 lbs. of produce in his pickup truck every week throughout the summer months.

There is also talk of developing large-scale agricultural operations that could further support the city’s food banks, but this could be many years down the road, Osborne says. In the meantime, we are “always looking for places to plant more crops,” such as in people’s backyards. Clients receive seed starts and seeds so they can grow food in their backyards, and we “want to do more things like that.”

Of his 14 years on the front lines of social services, Osborne says that being the Executive Director of the Rainier Valley Food Bank for four years is “by far the most favorite thing I’ve done.” In spite of his limited food budget, Osborne continually strives to include healthy, perishable items, whether chicken or fresh produce, on the food bank’s shelves because the people that visit the food bank are not just clients, but also neighbors.

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