Teaching Gardening and Supporting Farmers: One Food Bank’s Work to End Hunger

If you live in Whatcom County (USA), it’s likely you’ve heard of The Bellingham Food Bank. You’ve probably heard of it because it is a leading sevice provider in the fight against hunger in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. I have been familiar with their work since my time studying, living and working in Bellingham from 2006 to 2012, before I moved to Spain. At different times during that span of years I volunteered with the food bank’s preparation and distribution tasks, did some client surveying work and assisted with fundraising.

Whatcom County - Map data (c) 2015 City of Kamloops Google

Whatcom County – Map data (c) 2015 City of Kamloops Google

Above all, I’ve always been impressed with the Bellingham Food Bank’s attention to client needs and preferences. For example, the distribution area was recently remodeled to create more of a shopping experience for those who visit; rather than waiting in line, clients may go to any section of the food bank once they enter. If you were to come as a client, you could skip the dairy and go straight to the produce section. If you were in a hurry, you wouldn’t be kept up by a person moving slowly in front of you.

Another example of the food bank working to meet clients half-way was the recent creation of a school-based food pantry. This food pantry was set up in a neighborhood whose residents found it difficult to reach the downtown food bank. So, rather than say “tough luck,” the food bank agreed to move itself one evening a week directly to the school gym.

As I am interested in the intersection between social services and agriculture, on my most recent trip to the U.S. in the fall fo 2015, I made a point to visit the Bellingham Food Bank to learn more about the great work it’s doing with local farmers, gardeners and related outreach and education. Following are brief summaries of what I discovered.

Garden Project

On a fall morning in October, I met with the project manager of the Garden Project, which aims to educate food bank clients on growing their own food. As seems to be a trend, I was offered some tea. Julia, the manager, sat on her exercise ball (yep, the BFB is as hip a place to work as any!) as she described the project’s goals and challenges.

Garden Project recipients and their first garden. Photo Credit: Garden Project

Garden Project recipients and their first garden. Photo Credit: Garden Project

The Garden Project centers around empowerment,” she explained. Garden Project volunteers build garden beds in the homes of those clients who apply and are eligible. The project provides workshops on planting, transplanting, composting and organic fertilizing, among other fundamentals of at-home organic vegetable gardening. If they so choose, clients are matched up with a volunteer garden mentor who provides as much or as little support as requested during the set-up and maintenance of each garden. Support lasts for two years, but, as Julia reassured me, if someone needs help past that point, there are always resources that can be shared. “We aim to support garden recipients as they want to be supported.”

 

Flowering Garden Project garden beds. Photo Credit: Garden Project

Flowering Garden Project garden beds. Photo Credit: Garden Project

Julia, by the way, did not grow up with a green thumb. With a background in social services, her gardening knowledge developed when she began volunteering with the WWOOF program in New Zealand and Hawaii. She then spent four years as a farm worker in the Pacific Northwest. Hearing her story inspired me to continue finding ways in which I can educate myself and others about healthy food, responsible agriculture and the fight against hunger.

Garden mentors at an inpatient substance abuse facility for teenage girls. Photo Credit: Garden Project

Garden mentors at an inpatient substance abuse facility for teenage girls. Photo Credit: Garden Project

Garden Project recipients and their pumpkins. Photo Credit: Garden Project

Garden Project recipients and their pumpkins. Photo Credit: Garden Project

 

 

Small Potatoes Gleaning Project

With it’s Garden Project, the Bellingham Food Bank actively advocates sustainable methods of food production. With it’s Small Potatoes Gleaning Project, the organization attacks the problem of food waste.

It is well-disseminated knowledge that much of the world’s food goes to waste, both at early and late stages of the food supply chain. Gleaning is a traditional practice which, in the face of this rising and unsettling trend, has had a recent resurgence. Max, the Agricultural Programs Coordinator at the Bellingham Food Bank, says gleaning “is for food that would otherwise go to waste or is grown specifically for donation (without hope of monetary compensation).”

A sign leads the way to this Everson, Washington glean on a rainy October morning. Here a small group of volunteers harvested cabbage and beets from a farmer participating a hybrid contract purchase with the Bellingham Food Bank.

A sign leads the way to this Everson, Washington glean on a rainy October morning. Here a small group of volunteers harvested cabbage and beets from a farmer participating a hybrid contract purchase with the Bellingham Food Bank.

One focus of the Small Potatoes Gleaning Project is to do just this. The project organizes gleans at farms around Whatcom County in a dual effort to minimize produce going to waste on fields while providing the freshest food possible to hungry Bellingham residents.

Another branch of the Small Potatoes Gleaning Project is dedicated to supporting local farmers in their business and growing capacities through contract purchasing (either wholesale or in hybrid models) while providing fresh food to the food bank. As Max explains, this arm of the project is thus dedicated to “financially supporting the farms in our area and building the supply chain for institutions like us [The Bellingham Food Bank] to be able to buy more local food in the future.”

As you can see, this particular food bank clearly realizes that ending hunger requires a multi-faceted approach.

For information regarding gleaning in France, find a review of the film “The Gleaners and I” here.

A Crucial Challenge

The Bellingham Food Bank is a genuinely welcoming place to volunteer, receive food and work. Walking along the bright hallways of the newly remodeled central building, it’s easy to imagine yourself in any regular office. But the work that goes on here is bigger than this space; organizations such as this one are part of a global struggle to provide equal access to responsibly grown food while supporting small farmers. Programs such as this, I believe, are part of the solution to fixing our crooked food systems.

Reconnecting with the food bank this past autumn and realizing that hunger is as prevalent as ever reminds me of a conversation I had around 2008. At that time I had been volunteering with the Bellingham Food Bank’s distribution and preparation teams and had begun learning more about the realities of hunger in our community. The conversation occurred when I visited a friend in Seattle and told her about my work with the food bank. Her older brother, by many accounts a successful and well-educated person, listened to me speak. When I finished, he skeptically asked me, “How can that be? Is there really hunger in the U.S.?” He did not want to believe me because within his world, there was no hunger; hunger was something that happened to other people in other places. Perhaps he simply needed to be reminded that hunger takes various shapes (Malnutrition, for example, is a form of hunger which can present itself in an over-fed body). If nothing else, this goes to show that much more education must take place about what hunger means and how it presents itself around the world.

I’ll always remember the director of the Bellingham Food Bank telling me years ago that this organization is a “bandaid agency.” What he meant was that ideally, food banks and food pantries wouldn’t have to exist. Ideally, hunger would be a quick fix. But it’s not.

Keep tackling this crucial challenge!


To read about more of the Bellingham Food Bank’s projects, such as Victory Gardens, please visit their website.


Visit the Farm and Project Profiles page for more people and programs dedicated to keeping our food systems sustainable, healthy and just.


 

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