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.



One Month With a Small-Scale Organic Farmer

“We never have to leave because everyone comes here.” This was Lauro, one of the two farmer-carpenters with whom I lived this past September. He was speaking about the home and land he shares with his brother Alfredo just out of earshot of Nieva, a small village in Castilla y León, Spain.

La VeguillaLauro and Alfredo are brothers and have lived on this cattle barn-turned-carpentry workshop (slash kitchen slash bedroom) for the past 15 years. Their home is called La Veguilla, meaning a small meadow, and from the terrace you can see the church steeple in Nieva, where the brothers and their four other siblings grew up and where their parents still live. The two hectares of land provide them with a vegetable garden for commercialization and personal consumption, a chicken coop, a donkey named Paris (due to his uncanny resemblance to Paris Hilton), a rescued grey-hound with a previous life named Garabato (Scribble), a tree nursery and various carpentry workshops. At this moment they are extending the home to the north to include more workshop space and a sauna. In nearly every room there is a massage table, which Alfredo uses to help the friends and various clients who come through.

The two brothers essentially have a “puertas abiertas” (open doors) policy here. On any given day, friends of theirs come by to borrow tools, their parents come by for a chat and to pick figs, a winemaking friend drops off a bottle and shares some news, and clients come in to specify measurements for furniture they ordered. Sometimes people just stop for lunch. Many of their friends and project partners are people with whom they went to grade school who live in neighboring towns. Others, like the mosaicist, are newer friends.

The open doors are, as Lauro says, a convenience of their lifestyle: he doesn’t have to go out, because everyone else comes here. Alfredo adds, however, that much of the challenge (and the beauty) of creating this home has been finding a balance and harmony between all those who pass through and the amount of activity they bring with the brothers’ private lives and occasional need for solitude. 

Sometimes Lauro just wishes he had a BUSY sign to hang on the door.

The open doors also welcome many, many volunteers by way of the WWOOF program. Alfredo is positive that volunteers are a large part of what brings life to this place. Volunteers from the world over revive La Veguilla. Just during the month I spent there, I shared a roof with volunteers from China, Wales, Estonia and Australia.

So like many before me, I went to La Veguilla as a volunteer. My specific purpose, however (in addition to getting my hands in the dirt again) was to learn about the distribution of organic produce from the perspective of a small farmer in the vicinity of Madrid, my current home. In their invitation email, Alfredo and Lauro wrote “Come for a month and we’ll show you our vegetable box system.” From spring until the summer produce runs out, Lauro (the brother with a greener thumb) works nearly full time gardening and distributing produce boxes. The vegetable boxes (“las cajas”) are plastic crates filled to the brim with fruit and vegetables picked from the garden and then sold for between 10€ and 20€, depending on the contents, to friends and acquaintances as far as Segovia, a 30 minute car ride from the farm.

My first week there we included the following in each 20€ box: 2 kilos of potatoes, 1.5 kilos of green beans, about 4 tomatoes, 1 melon, 3 turnips, 1 big beet, 1 kohlrabi, 2 large green peppers, some chard, a bunch of basel and a bunch of parsley. 

Immediately inviting

Colorful and immediately inviting CSA boxes

On Fridays and Mondays we harvested produce and kept it cool in the storage building, where we would later add it to 20 to 25 boxes. We also prepared some boxes full of specific produce destined for herbolarios, which are small organic goods shops in Spain. On Tuesday morning, just before the truck took off, we picked the leafy goods – chard, kale, herbs – so they were as fresh as possible when they arrived to their destination. Lauro bought himself a white pick-up truck after his time in Alaska, inspired by its utility. Once we’d sorted the tetris puzzle of fitting and stacking all the boxes into the truck, we headed into town to deliver.

Preparing the delivery

Preparing the delivery

I wasn’t expecting anything in particular when Alfredo and Lauro first told me they’d show me their vegetable box “distribution system,” but it was quickly apparent that the processes they have are based on providing a quality product at a very relaxed pace. “I prefer quality over quantity,” Lauro would say when we harvested or packed the boxes. Or, “It’s better to do it slowly and well than in a rush” when we swept the storage room.

The relaxed pace of their approach was apparent on delivery days. Lauro knows who his regular customers are and would always prepare them boxes unless they’d called in advance to say “no.” Any extra boxes would go to friends he’d remember while we were driving into town or see walking on the sidewalk. For instance, one Tuesday while we waited for the light to change at an intersection in downtown Segovia, Lauro saw an old friend of his walking about 100 meters away. He honked the horn to get his friend’s attention, but to no avail. I asked him if he needed to speak to this friend. “No. I just want to sell him a box!”

Lauro does little marketing for his produce boxes. It’s all through word-of-mouth (or drive-by honkings). He says he doesn’t want to do explicit marketing because what he currently does is “enough.” I asked him what he meant by enough, if that meant it covered his costs. He laughed and replied that he hardly covers any costs with his boxes, after the food he buys for the volunteers and other outputs.

So, you may wonder, why does he do it?

I think it’s because gardening is worth it to him in and of itself. And he can (financially) afford to garden because he and Alfredo receive other income through their carpentry workshops and a tree nursery on the property.

Someone once asked Lauro when he was going to get rich. He looked at them and replied, seriously: “I am already rich.”

La vendimia - grape harvest

La vendimia – grape harvest

I agree with him, and this is why: the garden produces more than he and his brother can eat alone, they enjoy warm weather many months of the year, the chickens provide eggs nearly every day, their vigneron friends freely share bottles of top-notch wine from organic grapes, fruit trees in town provide figs for jam in the winter, the pine forest next door fills the air with bird songs, there’s an effortless cycle of reusing and recycling material and organic waste on their farm, the stars are bright at night, their friends are very good friends, their bodies are strong, the air is clean(er than the city), books line the walls, they know how to make their own furniture and they eat a high percentage of fresh, nutritious food day in and day out.

Additionally, due to the fact that their work space is also their living and leisure space, they avoid lengthy commutes and what Lauro might call “wasted time.” Perhaps that’s how they can afford a siesta most days! While others may seem to separate work and play, (or work and “life”?) as much as possible, at La Veguilla work and play have found a notable, but almost unnoticeable, flow. Lauro says he likes this because when he wakes up, his work is right there. Only someone who really values their life’s dedication would value the fact that it was always so physically close. All of this is not to say that their work isn’t cut out for them. Lauro and Alfredo always have something to do in and around the house.

Making rosemary cuttings

Making rosemary bush cuttings

They are accustomed to working many hours. “Our father sold our labor for income” Lauro once said, remembering the summers that he and his siblings worked on farms instead of going to the local pool as, it seemed, all the other kids did. He remembers picking weeds out of endless rows of beets and that when he started one row he couldn’t see the end of it. He and his siblings didn’t get any of that money directly, but it all came back to them somehow as it all was used for family expenses. “Kids in big families were kids who worked,” he remembers. While it was difficult work, it was still OK. “We always looked forward to school starting in the fall,” he laughed. Attending grade-school was much easier than working in the fields, it turns out.

Perhaps these many hours of harvest when he was under 15 years old are what led to his love of agriculture and gardening, and to his brother Alfredo’s appreciation of the outdoors. It could easily have gone the other way, though; these brothers could have joined the trend of younger generations leaving rural towns for the big cities. 

But, like I noted, there’s something about living on the edge of a small town, between pine forests and fields, where the pace is slow and the work is steady, that fits better with their goals, personalities and lifestyles. And even if the distribution system of their weekly summer vegetable boxes seems very (almost too) casual, it works for them.

I’d like to finish with a quote from Alfredo: “Every day, I appreciate the opportunity that life has given us to live in a place with such free movement and exchange of people and experiences. If we look at the history of the world and where we’re going, I can only hope that our space lasts a long time, and that this and other alternative ways of living become more widespread.”

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