Victory Gardeners, farm partners help fill Whatcom County food banks with fresh produce

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDApril 23, 2014 

The average date of the last frost in Whatcom County is still two weeks away. That's two more weeks that I'll need to coddle along the flats of tender vegetable starts crowded onto the sunniest windowsill in my house. Predictions are that this might be a mild year, but I'm not taking any chances. This means my personal garden is still a month out from producing much of anything.

Many Whatcom County farmers and gardeners are in a different camp, however, and that's a good thing for Bellingham Food Bank. Despite the Puget Sound seeing more March rain than ever before, fresh greens from local farms have been on our distribution tables since April 1. When I recently told a friend about it, he asked if this was typical for us or for any food bank. It's not. In fact, it's extraordinary. Farm-fresh produce in April is not only outside the historic norm for Bellingham Food Bank, it's virtually unheard of in the world of hunger relief.

Whatcom County's support for local produce is what brings such fresh and healthy offerings to struggling families. In addition to grocery rescue from Bellingham stores, our tool is food bank agricultural programs that harvest, buy, and help people to grow their own vegetables.

Since 2009, volunteers of our gleaning project have harvested excess or blemished produce from farms and the Bellingham Farmers Market, mostly from July through November. A few very generous growers such as Mike and Roger Boxx of Boxx Berry Farm actually plant crops specifically for donation. With more than three acres already planted for this purpose in 2014, the Boxxes will raise more than 100,000 pounds to share with Whatcom County food banks.

Since 2010, our garden project has been building 25 raised-bed gardens each year, empowering home gardeners with resources and mentoring to grow their own vegetables. Participants apply to the program each year in late winter.

Home gardeners donating their bounty came out stronger in 2013 than ever before. These green thumbs we call Victory Gardeners plant a bit extra in their garden and deliver that produce themselves. One head of lettuce at a time, the tally came to 52,000 pounds in 2013, and we're hoping that 2014 will continue the upward trend. Free seeds, yard-signs and a growing guide are designed to make this easy and fun. If you ever have any excess garden produce, you can become a Victory Gardener too!

These donations have given Bellingham's hungry families an abundance of food they often can't afford. The typical growing season in Whatcom County, however, leaves a darker period on the calendar, during which the food bank has little local produce. Since 2008, a program called Food Bank Fresh has been changing that reality by contracting directly with Whatcom farmers to buy staple vegetables when we need them. It started with buying bulk crops delivered a few times during peak season, gradually evolving into regular deliveries, just as a vendor would to any buyer. Then we started asking farmers to try extending the shoulder seasons for crops. Each year, these partners respond with new ideas and ways to deliver fresh produce at times when even many farmers markets are still weeks from starting. This year, 11 different farm partners will supply produce from April through December. In future years, we plan to have local produce every month of the year. By investing directly in our farm partners and their crops, we know what we'll be getting and when we'll have it - the perfect complement to peak summer donations. We also know that local farms are a great investment. If their business doesn't make it, we'd all be worse off.

Families at Bellingham Food Bank are receiving more fresh produce than ever. Sadly, the food bank is seeing more clients than ever before as well - well over 11,000 each month. That's nearly 1 in 5 households of Bellingham, and with numbers like that, we can use all of the produce we have. Would you like to be involved? Volunteer opportunities abound, and we would love to connect your family's extra garden or farm bounty with a family who might not otherwise have it.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Max Morange is the agricultural programs coordinator at Bellingham Food Bank. He can be reached at glean@bellinghamfoodbank.org.

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