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Seattle food systemat a crossroads

A new report examines the gaps and opportunities to build a more inclusive and resilient food system in the Puget Sound.

Earlier this spring, an informal, collaborative group of people and organizations met at the offices of King County to discuss the possibility of co-developing food infrastructure designed to help scale up the region’s local food economy, and thus the environmental, economic and social benefits that go with it.

The meeting followed the publication of a new report recently published by Ecotrust, the Puget Sound Food Infrastructure Exploration. Funded by the Bullitt Foundation and Sustainable Communities Funders, the report attempts to assess the need for infrastructure that would support the development of a robust local food system and vibrant small farm economy. It combined a distillation of learnings from many studies conducted in the region over the last several years; thought partnership from members of the Local Institutional Food Team (LIFT), including King Conservation District, King County, City of Seattle, Public Health – Seattle & King County, the Washington State Department of Agriculture, and the nonprofit Health Care Without Harm; direct feedback from local and environmentally conscious farmers and ranchers in Skagit, Snohomish, King and Pierce Counties; and direct contributions from community-based organizations, including FEEST Seattle, Living Well Kent, South King County Food Coalition, World Relief Seattle, Food Innovation Network, Feed Seven Generations, and the Urban Agriculture program at Highline College.

Woman wearing orange headband, grey sweater, and orange shirt gestures to an unseen person from behind a table of greens in a farmers market setting.
Farmer Veronica Karanja, originally from Kenya, talks to customers about her greens at the Living Well Kent's East Hill Farmers Market. Photo by Natasha Reed Photography

Inspired in part by the Oregon Food Infrastructure Gap Analysis published by Ecotrust in 2015, the Puget Sound Food Infrastructure Exploration attempted to answer the question: What gaps in infrastructure would, if filled, help meaningfully advance the development of a more inclusive, environmentally sound, prosperous local food system in the Puget Sound region?

A key conclusion of the report was that food system infrastructure—meaning warehousing space, cold and frozen storage, distribution, and specialized business incubation that includes support services—are needed at both the very small scale to serve new and beginning farmers, especially in South King County, and at the mid-scale to serve the slightly larger “agriculture of the middle” from across the region.

Based on the findings of the Puget Sound Food Infrastructure Exploration, Sustainable Communities Funders has expanded its support of a coalition of South King County community-based organizations, including many of those that provided contributions to the report, in further collaborative work to develop a model for shared-use, community-led food infrastructure.

Man in baseball cap, dark shirt, and jeans stands on a distribution truck ramp, lowering a pallet of product.
A distribution driver makes a stop during delivery for Puget Sound Food Hub. Photo courtesy Puget Sound Food Hub

The assets and resources that can be leveraged in these efforts are great. In South King County, community gardens like the Hillside Paradise Parking Plots in Kent, developed by World Relief Seattle in partnership with Hillside Church and King Conservation District, are places where immigrant families can grow fresh, healthy foods that are often inaccessible and unaffordable, while reconnecting with the growing practices and cultural foodways from their home countries. Some of those families have significant agriculture experience and are well-positioned to develop commercial urban farms to sell locally to small grocers or via urban farm stands, but lack the cold storage to hold product overnight and maintain quality, as well as access to culturally-relevant business development and incubation support. Small-scale, affordable infrastructure located in the neighborhood and operated for and by the communities it’s meant to serve could be key to both expanding fresh, healthy food access in South King County and supporting those seeking to grow into urban farming as a business.

“To support regionalizing the food system, big buyers must be able to confidently allocate more of their budget to local suppliers, and those suppliers will need to offer daily, consistent delivery.”

Woman in green sweater stand in foreground in a line with other people working near a conveyor belt carrying carrots.
Employees at Ralph's Greenhouse in Mount Vernon, Wash., wash and sort carrots. The company is one of the largest wholesale farms in the region, specializing in carrots and beets. Photo by Amanda Oborne

Midscale infrastructure would fill other critical gaps. Larger organic and regenerative farms in the broader Puget Sound region have capacity to grow significant amounts of food, and expanding their local sales and distribution would build our collective regional food resilience. Farm aggregators like Puget Sound Food Hub, Viva Farms, and Farmstand Local Foods all consolidate deliveries of food from local farmers into grocery stores and foodservice operations like those feeding Seattle Public Schools, Virginia Mason Hospital, and corporate cafes like those at Amazon’s offices. But without affordable and efficient warehousing space in the urban center, the aggregators are limited to delivering only a couple of days per week. To support regionalizing the food system, big buyers must be able to confidently allocate more of their budget to local suppliers, and those suppliers will need to offer daily, consistent delivery and verified food safety compliance. This won’t be possible without new infrastructure to support it.

“Shifting power and resources towards those most impacted by inequities is the surest way towards rebuilding a food system that is just.”

As that group of organizations that met at the offices of King County consider a feasibility study to assess an operating model for a new local food aggregation hub, there is the opportunity for local ag of the middle farmers and ranchers, food retailers, institutional foodservice, nonprofits, corporations, community residents, public agencies, and academic institutions to engage in a robust community development process that leads to greater access to both fresh, local foods and economic opportunity.

Along the way, Ecotrust may be able to offer lessons learned. As a result of our Oregon food infrastructure study, we developed the Redd on Salmon Street, and have learned firsthand both how effectively we can help open doors and market access to ag of the middle producers, and also how essential it is to shape strategies in partnership with community-based groups from the onset.

Our recent research and past experience with infrastructure development demonstrate the importance of community-based organizations being engaged as equal partners early on in the process. This includes adequately compensating staff members of partner organizations to support their participation as active co-creators in research and project development. Utilizing people-first community development strategies can ensure that economic development translates into wealth building opportunities for people from historically marginalized communities.

Seattle’s local food movement faces a unique moment. Local food leadership and community-based organizations are activated and doing powerful place-based work. Given the historic and current systemic barriers facing communities of color, shifting power and resources towards those most impacted by inequities is the surest way towards rebuilding a food system that is just. We must remain committed to a vision of local, healthy, environmentally restorative food that is accessible and affordable to all, and to shifting toward a food culture that builds prosperity and resilience in the process.

Top photo caption: A refugee gardener from Myanmar (Burma) prepares her garden bed for planting during the opening of Paradise Parking Lot Community Garden, a project of World Relief — Seattle. Photo by Hannah Letinich