We’ve all heard the saying: give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. But what if you could do both?
In our modern times there are a variety of reasons why a person would need a little extra help to get food: In-between paychecks, scrambling to pay the bills, or unforeseen medical emergencies to name a few. They might “know how to fish” but just need a little help that day. Thankfully, we have an amazing network of local food banks and charities that help to get food to those who need it most. We also have an incredible opportunity for fresh and healthy foods thanks to the large quantity of farms and farmland in Whatcom County. This is where the “teach a man to fish” comes in, what if there was a program that mentored new and upcoming farmers about farming and sustainable business practices while providing them funding for deliveries of terrific local food to those in need? Guess what, that’s exactly what we are doing with our Food To Bank On program thanks in part to support from United Way of Whatcom County.
Food To Bank On has supported 44 fledgling farms and achieved an 80 percent success rate (far exceeding the new business five-year average of 50 percent) since its inception.
In 2003, Sustainable Connections and the Community Food Co-op launched Food To Bank On, a three-year farmer training project that provides resources and mentorship to support the success of new farmers while delivering fresh, local food to area food banks and shelters. Through Food To Bank On, participants create or refine business plans, access marketing and promotional assistance, and receive valuable feedback as a part of a close knit peer group with mentor support to help grow their enterprises. An average of three new participants enter the program each fall, replacing an equal number of new graduates and completing a cohort group of nine to eleven farms. In 2014, participating farms offered products ranging from produce, beans and grains to grass fed meat, eggs and flowers, veggie starts and seeds. Participating farmers provide area food banks and shelters with up to $12,000 worth of product annually.
According to Bellingham Food Bank nearly 20 percent of Bellingham residents visit the food bank on a regular basis and more than 50 percent of the people who come are kids or senior citizens. The Bellingham Food Bank is one of the busiest food banks in Western Washington, seeing more than 1,200 families every week. And these numbers grow throughout Whatcom County with residents in each city visiting food banks and shelters to get the food they need to survive.
Farming is a hard business to start. Farmers not only have to be knowledgeable about growing crops or raising animals, often in non-ideal weather conditions, but also following the culminating food safety regulations, marketing their products and managing the administrative sides of their businesses. With United Way of Whatcom County’s support of the Food to Bank on program we are able to offer a variety of assistance for new and upcoming farmers and provide food for those in need in our communities:
Training: Business planning, technical training workshops and field days offered in conjunction with WSU Whatcom County Extension. Each year, the program offers a business planning series from January through April, hosting eight workshops bi-monthly on topics from marketing to financing, taxes and insurance to human resources best practices, on-farm efficiencies, record-keeping and more. Additionally, each participant may access $200 in scholarship funds annually to attend regional professional development training opportunities.
Markets: New farmers are paid wholesale rates to deliver fresh food to local food banks; farmers are connected with new markets through Sustainable Connections membership. Throughout the course of the year, each farmer participant is paid wholesale rates to deliver up to $1,200 worth of fresh, local food to their choice of food bank or shelter. Food bank partners report the food donations are highly valuable due to the fresh, healthy and local nature of the products
Mentorship: In addition to valuable peer-to-peer relationships with the cohort of farmers, each new farmer is paired up with an experienced mentor farmer. Food To Bank On has supported 44 fledgling farms and achieved an 80 percent success rate (far exceeding the new business five-year average of 50 percent) since its inception. Past participants now supply area farmers markets, wholesale grocery, and restaurant accounts and have strong, viable operations grounded in sustainable business practices. Area food banks and shelters have received over $87,000 worth of fresh, local agricultural products distributed among hundreds of community members served throughout Whatcom County.
Right now United Way is conducting their annual campaign and I encourage you to make a contribution to this community-changing organization. United Way is looking at the bigger picture and helping more than 100,000 people a year through a variety of projects and partner programs. We are proud to have their support for our Food to Bank on Program, and we are also proud of the variety of issues that they focus on because it takes more than just one program to solve these large community-wide problems. It takes all of us working together, a variety of programs, research, transparency, and dedication – United Way of Whatcom County is doing all of this to ensure a stronger community for us all. Please contribute to this year’s United Way Campaign, the more they raise the more people will be helped and the more programs they can partner with. We can truly make great things happen when we live united!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Derek Long is a founder and has been a director for Sustainable Connections since 2002.
About United Way of Whatcom County
United Way of Whatcom County runs more than 150 workplace giving campaigns during the fall to benefit Whatcom County’s Community Impact Fund, which focuses on education, income, and health. For more information about making a contribution, conducting a United Way workplace campaign, or for more information about United Way of Whatcom County, go online to unitedwaywhatcom.org.