There’s a flaw in Clark County’s food system, and it’s preventing local schools and restaurants from serving locally grown food.
That flaw is the lack of a redistribution facility where local farmers can sell their goods and grocery stores, school systems and restaurants can buy them. It’s a problem that the Clark County Food System Council is eager to tackle, even if the group’s limited funding makes that a challenge.
“If you look at the Evergreen and Vancouver school districts, almost none of the food served is locally grown,” said Kristine Perry, current chair of the Clark County Food System Council and one of its founders. “Both the Evergreen and Vancouver school districts are very interested in using local food, but the volume they need every day – we need to figure out how to bring several small farmers together to make it viable.”
The council is in the process of opening its first food hub, called Second Mile Marketplace, in Hazel Dell, which could meet some of those demands. The facility – which isn’t open yet but could be as early as mid-July – will include a commercial kitchen that local businesses and farmers can use to make food, along with storage space for agricultural crops.
“Anyone will be able to go and rent the space, and what we want is for growers and entrepreneurs to make their own healthy food products there,” Perry said. “A lot of our farmers and entrepreneurs now just don’t have enough kitchen space to produce or make things right now.”
Clark County used to have a food hub like that about 40 years ago, but it was dissolved when the county decided to make development a bigger priority, said Ann Foster, director of the Salmon Creek Farmers Market and past chair of the Clark County Food System Council.
“What that really is and what we need is a pipeline, or middleman, to help things flow,” Foster said.
When Second Mile Marketplace opens, it will be able to store and redistribute locally grown agricultural products to restaurants, and possibly schools – although the logistics of serving schools is a bit more complex because Clark County’s school systems already have big food systems in place, Foster said.
“A lot of this has come from the needs local restaurants have expressed,” Foster said. “They want locally produced food, but it’s hard to connect with small farmers on a regular basis to get the supply that they need. You think of it all as being automatic, but it isn’t at all because that step between grower and restaurant is so cumbersome.”
The Clark County Food System Council was formed in 2007 through grant funding as part of the Steps to a Healthier Clark County Initiative.
“One of the things the grant did was help us look at access to healthy food in our community,” Perry said. “That helped us to start identifying issues and gathering people together. We brought together a diverse group from schools, health systems, cities, the county, farmers and others.”
A food system is basically a cycle of food – starting with production, processing and distribution and continuing into access, consumption and waste management. The goal of the council is to fortify and support all the links in that cycle.
But keeping it running has been a bit of a challenge, especially in the funding department, Perry said.
“It has evolved through the years,” Perry said. “We ended up under Clark County Public Health after the first grant ran out. Then in 2014 or 2015 Clark County Public Health transitioned out and the Food Council became a nonprofit.”
After the grant money ran out, the Food System Council went through a separation process from the Clark County Commission in 2014. And in the past five years the donation-based, all-volunteer group has been reorganizing and reassessing its goals.
“We are a nonprofit in the state of Washington now,” Foster said. “We are not a 501(c)3, but we would like to be.”
The council includes member-volunteers from a wide swatch of the county’s food network – including local farmers markets, food processors, government officials and the public.
The Food System Council’s goals this year include educating and informing the community about what it does and finding new ideas, partnering with local organizations such as Clark College and supporting sustainable food production and distribution networks.
In the past few years, the council has worked to network more parts of the local food system together with the help of Clark College, by hosting two Food Summits, one in 2017 and one more recently in February 2019.
“That’s been really pivotal,” Perry said. “Talking issues and bringing people together to talk about their priorities has really helped. We’re sort of a guiding force, or an organizing force, for this process.”
The Food System Council plans to work on more Food Summits with Clark College in coming years, Foster said.
“People can participate in workshops about local food, workshops looking at opportunities for local businesses and discussion panels about what’s needed to nurture our food system,” Foster said. “We look forward to doing another one in a couple of years.”
About 125 people showed up to each of the prior Food Summits, maxing out the space, Foster added.
The council hopes to target some specific communities for more discussion on ways to help improve food access, as well. And it’s looking at outreach methods such as social media, events and possibly hosted conversations at Kiggins Theater or the Fort Vancouver Regional Library. Those interested in participating can also apply to join the Food System Council through its website at http://www.clarkfoodsystem.org/.
The group also wants to look at local infrastructure and the regulatory environment to find new ways to help food entrepreneurs and small farms grow. Right now, a lot of local farmers are struggling due to increasing land costs and an aging workforce.
“A lot of our farmers are retiring,” Perry said. “We really need some young, entrepreneurial-spirited, new farmers to get out there. But there are challenges. It’s really expensive to buy land right now.”
Getting healthy food to residents in need is also a problem. Housing costs are strongly related to food insecurity in the county. With rising rents, many families are spending 50% or more of their income on housing, leaving less for healthy food, Perry said.
Some of the poorer neighborhoods in Vancouver are also surrounded by what Perry calls food swamps – areas with little to no access to grocery stores or farmers markets but are surrounded by fast food chains and cheap, high-salt, high-fat food options.
“Fruit Valley, for instance, where we’re partnering with the neighborhood and the Clark County Food Bank, is a food desert right now,” Perry said. “And even when you go to the grocery store, you often don’t see high nutrient food right away. You see the processed foods at the front.”
Despite the challenges of running on a shoestring budget with a volunteer workforce, the Clark County Food System Council still has a lot on its plate in the coming year. But the goal of getting more healthy food into the kitchens of Clark County residents is one that’s well worth it, and the council is looking forward to getting more input from the community, Perry said.
“I’m really excited about the opportunities we have,” Perry said.