Rainier Beach Action Coalition Virtual Town Hall to Share Plans for Neighborhood’s Food Innovation District

by Jack Russillo

It’s taken years of work, but the Rainier Beach Food Innovation District is finally on the horizon.

After the Rainier Beach Action Coalition (RBAC) received funding over the summer from the City of Seattle’s Equitable Development Initiative (EDI), RBAC has ramped up work on its planned Food Innovation District, a network of food-related businesses and activities aimed at creating living-wage jobs and preventing displacement. Once complete, the food-centric district could be a natural hub for retail and restaurant development; farmers markets, festivals and other attractions; and public health outreach and services, such as cooking and nutrition classes or harvest gleaning programs that move farm surpluses to families in need. With assistance from Forterra, RBAC acquired ownership of a property at the end of October with a central location in the Rainier Beach neighborhood. The $3 million purchase is the result of a decade-long effort and will help RBAC implement a primary aspect of their neighborhood plan.

Plans to develop the Rainier Beach Food Innovation District have been in the works since 2010, when a neighborhood meeting created a vision centered around food acting as a catalyst for neighborhood identity, cultural diversity and heritage, health and job creation. 

RBAC will host a virtual town hall event Wednesday Dec. 9 at 6:30 p.m. to talk about the project, discuss plans for the future Food Innovation Center, and gather ideas from the community about helping Rainier Beach achieve food justice and create a more equitable approach to public safety. Beacon Hill’s Nurturing Roots Farm will be among a handful of food justice and public safety programs that will present at the live-streamed event. 

“The moderators will consistently draw the connections between this food justice work, the importance of the food innovation center, and ultimately how that winds up impacting public safety,” said Gregory Davis, RBAC’s managing strategist. “The connection came on to us when young people at Rainier Beach High School weren’t liking the food in the school and they would go to the Safeway. And eventually, one or two of them got caught shoplifting. So here we are, some young people just trying to get something to eat, suffering from this punitive experience, so we wanted to draw this connection.”

Organizers will share an email address during the virtual town hall event so that attendees from the community can submit their own ideas or other input for the project. 

RBAC will also be engaging with community residents about the timeline for the more immediate goals of the project, such as making tenant improvements to the newly-acquired building; purchasing equipment and tools for the community kitchen space; creating an office setting with multimedia capabilities; and operating a farmstand on the property by June 2021 that sells BIPOC-sourced produce.

The property is a .93-acre parcel across the street from the Rainier Beach Link light rail station, on the west side of Martin Luther King Jr. Way South and the south side of South Fairbanks Street. Davis said that the building on the property has been “unattended to” for years. 

(Photo: Alex Garland)

Forterra began working with RBAC in 2014 when Connor was contacted by Harry Hoffman, a dedicated Rainier Beach resident who reached out to her before his death to share his vision for the Food Innovation District. Since then, Forterra has provided conservation, real estate, and legal assistance to help the project move forward.

“For years and years and years, the community has worked on this,” said Michelle Connor, Forterra’s president. “The resources that were available have allowed them to have this vision and it was only possible through all this will from the community that the ownership of land became a reality. And that just drives how important that is to me, to see this exciting step come forward where the community is planning around a piece of property that they own and that they can secure the benefits from, because who owns the land drives the benefits that come from that land.”

Since 2018, RBAC has received more than $3 million from Seattle’s EDI funds that have gone into the development of the Food Innovation Center. A large majority of that money went toward the acquisition of the property while the remaining funds will be put to use on “predevelopment stages” of the center. 

“This could do an untold number of things for the community,” said Davis. “First of all, the Food Innovation Center was designated as an anti-displacement strategy, which was one of the reasons that it got funded… We’re looking forward to combatting displacement, be it displacement of residents or non-profits because of shared office space. This is going to allow us to continue to be the policy change stewards that we’ve been. When we think about a food policy council, this is going to allow us to have a home for such an entity for food policy in the neighborhood and across the city.”

The Food Innovation Center will eventually be the base of operations for the neighborhood’s food justice system, with the goal of creating jobs and pathways to economic mobility in the Rainier Beach neighborhood. RBAC will continue to seek input from the community before offering specific ideas for the space. So far, ideas for the center include having several industrial kitchens, cold storage for local BIPOC farmers, a gathering space for the community, as well as utilizing the nearby Rainier Beach Urban Farm & Wetlands and installing raised garden beds along Henderson Street.

“Our excitement is without measure about the $3 million received to purchase property across the street from the Rainier Beach light rail station,” Davis posted on the RBAC website. “RBAC has been toiling on the ground in Rainier Beach since 2003. We see the allocation of resources for this purchase as reparations for effort expended during that time to make Rainier Beach a beautiful safe Place, a place for everyone, a place that believes in life long learning and a place to grow healthy food for healthy industry.”

“We owe it to ourselves and to our neighborhoods that ensure that people have opportunity to be in the places that they choose to be in with the kinds of community assets that they aspire to,” said Connor. “To be able to see a neighborhood where that’s happened, even with the investments that are driving gentrification throughout South King County, is a huge stake in the ground in terms of saying how we want to live as a region. I think it demonstrates why government needs to make resources available to neighborhoods that have been systemically deprived of resources. It’s not by accident that there is a huge wealth gap between white Americans and Black Americans, that those were policies driven by government and we’re going to get out of this with policies driven by government.”

Jack Russillo has been reporting in Western Washington since 2013. He covers the environment, social justice, and other topics that affect a sustainable and equitable future. He currently lives in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood.

Featured image: Rainier Beach Action Coalition’s Rainier Beach office. (Photo: Alex Garland)