Food Bank Fresh aids Whatcom County farmers, ensures produce for clients

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJune 17, 2013 

Have you had your first fresh strawberry of the year? I did, just yesterday. It was a Shuksan variety grown at Boxx Berry Farm, and it was incredible. Berries and a whole lot more crops are on the verge of ripeness in Whatcom County, and I'm pretty excited about it.

I spend a lot of time at Boxx Berry Farm and with other producers in Whatcom County, not just because I like to check on the progress of the berry rows. As agricultural programs coordinator at Bellingham Food Bank, it's my pleasure to work with seven partner farms that grow fresh produce on contract for Bellingham Food Bank through a program called Food Bank Fresh.

The model is really simple: each January, we look at our previous years' records for how much fresh produce was donated. We match these against our goal of providing food bank clients with the USDA's recommended number of servings of fruits and vegetables, and we pay local farms for great produce to help us make up that gap.

In this way, our resources go farther even as our budgets get tighter. This is counterintuitive, I know. You see, Food Bank Fresh-just like our other agricultural programs-functions on the knowledge that the single most powerful tool that we have in our effort to end hunger are partnerships-with volunteers, with non-food businesses and with farmers and fishers. As a food bank, we don't grow, process or produce food. Instead we rely upon generous local corporations, foundations, businesses and members of our community who join us in the belief that hunger is unacceptable, and we ask them for help.

The farmer side of the coin doesn't look too different from the Food Bank's, and we know that the more we rely upon local food producers and businesses, the more important their survival becomes to our pantry's shelves. That's why we built into Food Bank Fresh the idea that we would work in the offseason with local farms to determine a crop list for the upcoming harvest year, establish prices that allow them to make a reasonable return, and pay them up front for their contract. Food Bank Fresh not only creates a new market outlet for farms, it also supports the development of diversified business plans within the Whatcom farm economy and results in a stronger local food system.

"A contract is an amazing planning tool," says Anna Martin of Osprey Hill Farm. "Nothing ever ends up in our garden by accident. All of our crops, varieties and succession plantings are part of a production plan that we develop in late January, making our best guess as to what will sell. A contract takes all the guess work out and reduces the stress and time involved in marketing and selling product when we are at our busiest. I love it."

According to Mauri Ingram, Whatcom Community Foundation president and CEO, "Nonprofit organizations need to be entrepreneurial in their approach to achieving their goals. Bellingham Food Bank Fresh is an excellent example. The Food Bank saw the opportunity to contract with local farmers to make high quality food available to their clients. We see value in their approach because everyone involved benefits: Food Bank clients have access to healthy, locally grown food, the Food Bank can specify what they want to purchase, and local farmers have a reliable customer. The Community Foundation is thrilled to have been part of realizing the Food Bank's big idea. The program is a great example of how giving here in Whatcom County makes people's lives better."

"I'd be a very happy farmer," says Osprey Hill's Martin, "if more of our production was by contract. It's a piece of cake--literally enjoyable--to know your crops have a home before they even go in the ground. It fits seamlessly into our current production and we're able to maintain our crop diversity and continue to grow our wholesale and Community Supported Agriculture program at the same time."

This year's farm partners include Boxx Berry Farm, Osprey Hill Farm, Moon Dance Farm, Cedarville Farm, Terra Verde Farm, Rabbit Fields Farm, and Hopewell Farm.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Max Morange is agricultural programs coordinator at Bellingham Food Bank. For more information online, go to bellinghamfoodbank.org.

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