Op-Ed: The Need for Food Innovation in Rainier Beach

by David Sauvion

Historically, Rainier Beach has always been a place for health and wellness. Seattleites would ride the electric trolley for a day at the beach and take in the fresh air, maybe a dip in the lake and enjoy expansive waterfront views. Before long, the area was built up and a new wave of settlers found homes where the Duwamish had previously established their village. The “little Island” became Pritchard Island, and the forest trail through the valley that connected it to the salt water (Elliott Bay) was named Rainier Ave S.

Today, it is still a vibrant neighborhood with tons of recreational activities, but it’s especially desired because of its welcoming community and a housing stock that remains more accessible than most areas of Seattle. The beach has made way to motor boats and parking lots and efforts to reclaim the waterfront are still ongoing. Health has become an issue, and in the face of displacement some are hoping that nutritious food can provide, once again, a  healthy sustenance to Rainier Beach residents.

Food isn’t only a rich cultural asset to this neighborhood and this city. Beyond bringing people together, it fulfills a basic service that all have a need for. But it’s time to think about where our food comes from, what it does to our neighbors and instead of being the problem, make it part of the solution.

Community members are working to turn the dials and are partnering with residents, entrepreneurs, non-profit, funders, developers and local authorities to develop projects to spur economic development and tackle systemic change in the food chain.

Programs are already in place from the ground up through non-profit organizations to support food entrepreneurship, like Ventures and Seattle Made, or establish fair labor standards like Restaurant Opportunities Centers or Fair Work Center.

Local activists and partner organizations are working diligently on a number of initiatives in the neighborhood to connect the dots and implement that vision. The Rainier Beach Urban Farm and Wetlands is set to reopen with additional greenhouses, classrooms, a community kitchen and dry and cold storage. The Food and Farm Hub, spearheaded by SouthEast Effective Development, opened in 2015 hosting Tilth Alliance (formerly Seattle Tilth), Seattle Farm Coop, Wow Chocolates, JuiceBox and Rainier Beach Action Coalition, and a list of others is growing looking for similar facilities.

A brand new Rainier Valley food bank is at an early design stage, the South Economic Opportunity Center is holding it’s 4th Community meeting on March 4th, the Food Innovation Center is closing on a home, and many, many markets are being explored.

Why Food Innovation?

Local food innovation is expected to be a top 10 growth industry over the next decade, and local authorities are fully aware of this trend. Both the City of Seattle and King County have detailed Food Action Plans and Initiatives highlighting pioneering efforts in SeaTac and Rainier Beach. Skagit County has also partnered with Washington State University to support the work of the BreadLab and develop sustainable grains that can be milled respectively into flour for baking or malt for brewing. The Port of Seattle is actively pursuing options for a new incubation facility location.

A recent case statement for Food Innovation District in Rainier Beach prepared by the American Communities Trust for the Office of Planning and Community Development explained that the “Food Industry” is accessible to people with limited education and has a range of pay scales. Jobs in sub-sectors like packaging, warehousing, distribution, manufacturing and processing can have salary ranges that are well above a living wage.

So how do we disturb the food chain/system and provide access to affordable, healthy and culturally relevant nutrition? How do we reduce food waste while creating opportunities for youth to learn better habits, build new skills and get hired locally?

Food Innovation matters

The Food Innovation District is an anti-displacement strategy. Food insecurity due to climate change is a top concern of Southend residents according to a 2016 report by Got Green and Puget Sound Sage. Their research also identified rising food cost as a significant issue, and increased diseases and health concerns ranked top priority.

Rainier Beach isn’t a food desert as such, but “fringe food”, as defined by Mari Gallagher, have an overwhelming presence in the area and sustain bad habits. Although around 75% of students in neighborhood schools benefit from free and reduced lunches, most will tell you that they’d rather buy fast-food for fear of becoming sick from school canteen processed and microwaved unhealthy options.

The affordable housing crisis topped that list of concerns too, and one response to climate change looked at sustainable communities with a focus on integrating climate action with community improvements like dense and affordable, livable communities, where people can easily access job and transit.

Smart growth

As our City grows and demand for services increases, it’s important to think about what this means for low-income workers and young adults entering the job market. The equity analysis maps show serious disparities across the City in terms of access to opportunity. In order to prevent further displacement and limit climate change impact by keeping workers close to public transportation, we have to rethink the use of our transit-oriented development beyond Housing.

In a recent Seattle Times article, Councilmember Rob Johnson stated in the context of the U-District upzone: “Putting dense buildings by a light-rail station is good for the environment and good for society.” He also added: “Study after study has shown that access to frequent and reliable transportation is one of the best ways to get people out of poverty.”

It took over 4 years to get the Rainier Beach neighborhood plan update approved, but as the Urbanist reported last October, it does welcome more growth, especially around the light rail station, and as long as it maximizes community benefits.

Rainier Beach needs jobs with low barriers to entry in industries that allow pathways for existing residents and newly arrived immigrants to enter the workforce and become entrepreneurs. Something we are all hearing daily, is critical to the U.S. economy. A Food Innovation District has the potential to satisfy these needs, and would be a smart investment for the City of Seattle and the future of Rainier Beach and its people.

Urban Villages failed to deliver on employment targets in the last Comprehensive Plan cycle, reaching only 40% of the goal. The proposed Food Innovation District aligns with Mayor Murray’s vision for equitable growth that transforms communities while providing opportunities for residents (as stated in his 2015 State of the City address).

 “To grow a thriving cultural community with equitable access to economic opportunity and affordable healthy food.” Utopia or visionary?

Have your say!

On February 23rd, and with the support of the Kresge Foundation and Communities of Opportunity, Rainier Beach Action Coalition is hosting a Town Hall at the Ethiopian Community Center (8323 Rainier Ave S, Seattle, WA 98118) from 6 pm to 8:30 pm with a focus on the Food Innovation District. Come and let us know what you think. It’s essential that you help shape this vision if it ever stands a chance to succeed.

The event will include a resource fair with healthy food options and training and job opportunities in the food industry, a presentation from Rainier Beach High School International Baccalaureate students on the “Ethical Food Systems” conference they attended in Denver last summer, and breakout sessions to discuss Food Culture, Health and Economic Development. Delicious food will be shared and Childcare will be provided.

RBAC is also launching a community-led participatory research and encourages your involvement and input. For more information or questions, call 206.859.7820, or go to www.rbcoalition.org.

David Sauvion is a co-founder of the Rainier Beach Action Coalition and project coordinator for the Food Innovation District. He lives and works in Rainier Beach, sits on the Southeast Design Review Board and is a Steering Committee member of South Communities Organizing Regional/Racial Equity (S-CORE). He was also a member of the Neighborhood Advisory Committee that worked with City Staff on the Rainier Beach Plan Update between Sept. 2010 and March 2012.



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