Farmers Market Program Funnels Fresh Produce to Local Food Banks

by Ben Adlin

With the city’s farmers markets having been shuttered for weeks and only recently beginning to reopen, some regional farmers have been stuck with produce they can’t sell. Now a collaboration between local businesses, farmers markets and food banks is working to redirect those fruits and vegetables to hungry communities across the Seattle area.

It’s an effort to respond on the fly to uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic and ensure food banks have what they need during the coming months. It also keeps much-needed income flowing to the Northwest’s small farms.

The program, funded by PCC Community Markets and run cooperatively by PCC and Seattle Neighborhood Farmers Markets, matches local farmers who have a surplus of produce with food banks in search of specific items. Money from PCC’s Food Bank Program then buys the produce at wholesale prices, and the food is delivered directly to an organization that can put it to use.

“It’s a win-win for food banks and farms,” said Brian Sindel, food bank manager at the Polack Food Bank on Capitol Hill, which expects to receive food from the program as the growing season picks up for local farmers. Food banks’ usual sources of fresh fruits and vegetables have recently slowed down due to the pandemic, explained Sindel, and he sees the new program as a way to help meet demand that could continue to grow over the coming months.

“We’re expecting that, actually,” Sindel said. “We’re only in the very beginning of the economic hardship that’s coming.”

PCC’s work with farmers markets and food banks stretches back years, but COVID-19 has put unexpected stresses on the food system. The grocer has traditionally supplied bulk items such as dried foods to local food banks, but changes in both product availability and social distancing guidelines have made that work more difficult.

“During this current situation, there’s, like, no model that’s working in the same way,” said Lamai Cox, manager of community relations at PCC. So instead, PCC is funnelling its philanthropic dollars toward the new program to pair farmers directly with food banks.

One recent partnership paired the Rainier Valley Food Bank with a local mushroom producer who was left with heaps of the edible fungi that would have otherwise gone to waste. “Rainier Valley food bank bought all those mushrooms and distributed them to their clients,” said Samantha Kielty, programs manager at Seattle Neighborhood Farmers Markets.

Another food bank, North Helpline’s Bitter Lake Food Bank, was in search of specific types of produce: asparagus, berries, grapes and tomatoes. “I work with one farm, and they grow only those things,” Kielty said. “It was kind of a perfect marriage.”

Asked about how the program was progressing at the West Seattle Food Bank, Executive Director Fran Yeatts replied: “I can tell you we did get some great asparagus through this partnership and are looking at ways to continue and expand.”

The program recently put $50,000 toward buying apples from local orchards, which will be used by local food nonprofit FareStart. “The apples that we’ll receive will be used in emergency meals that we’re providing to organizations across King County that serve youth, adults and families who are low income or experiencing homelessness,” said Stephanie Schoo, the organization’s marketing and communications director.

Under the program, food banks also have greater control over the types of produce they receive. Existing systems often route unsold produce to food banks, a process known as food rescue. While that produce is often free, selection is limited by what’s available.

“When you’re rescuing and getting free food, you never know what you’re going to get,” said Kielty at Seattle Neighborhood Farmers Markets. “In order to cater to their clients’ needs and their cultural diets, there does need to be some way for the food banks to choose what their clients want.”

Sindel, at Polack Food Bank, agreed that having more control over what produce the food bank receives means that less food goes to waste. Stocking food at a food bank, he said, is a balancing act that often involves “the shelf life of the food, people’s preferences of what they want to eat and our limited cooler space.”

The program is a lifeline for farmers, too. Food purchased for the program is paid for up front, which means small producers don’t have to wait weeks or months to see income. “I don’t think people realize how much money it takes to get a farmer to have a head of lettuce or that pound of cherries that you buy at the market,” Kielty said. “It takes tens of thousands of dollars for some farmers to just get to the point of harvesting, so having the money up front is night and day.”

As the coronavirus pandemic stretches on, PCC says it will continue to examine how existing programs might be adjusted to meet current conditions. “We’re trying to be responsive to the community and what’s needed at the time,” said Aimee Simpson, the company’s director of advocacy and product sustainability. “Along this whole course, our team has been taking cues from what our partners need and what the community needs.”

Meanwhile, Sindel at Polack Food Bank encouraged anyone in the community currently experiencing food insecurity to contact their local food bank. Resources are out there, he said. “I would encourage people to access their food bank if they’re even considering whether or not they should.”

Ben Adlin is a Seattle-based journalist. 

Featured image: courtesy of PCC Community Markets.