by Syris Valentine
Throughout South Seattle and South King County, food insecurity is all too common. While around 13% of households across the county receive basic food assistance, that figure doubles in the South End. Though several organizations aim to distribute as much food as possible to South King County communities, almost all of them have faced a common problem for years: access to space to keep food cool and fresh. Now, a solution is forming — a food hub.
Since 2015, King County has identified lack of access to infrastructure, cold storage especially, as a key barrier preventing small farmers and hunger-relief organizations from establishing a more just food system. The pandemic made the challenge even worse as food insecurity spiked and cold storage space was sucked up to store vaccines. But the County kept looking for space that could support the needs of the food system. Finally, in the summer of 2021, Food Lifeline offered half of an 80,000-square-foot warehouse to be converted into a community-run food hub. When completed, the South Seattle Community Food Hub will provide not only cold (and dry) storage space, but also offices and meeting rooms as well as processing space and a commercial kitchen where businesses and organizations can prep food for distribution — or even sale.
Although King County and Food Lifeline initiated the project, the food hub will be controlled by community organizations. Michael Lufkin, program manager of King County’s Local Food Initiative, made it clear that the County’s role was to answer one question: How can local government help get the project to a point where there’s enough resources for the community to be able to take it on and move it forward? This included conducting a feasibility study to determine the total project cost and applying for early sources of funding.
Even while this question loomed large, community members were involved in shaping the direction of the food hub, and shortly after Food Lifeline offered its warehouse, a project advisory committee was formed that brought together community-based food system actors of all kinds: farmers and producers, hunger-relief organizations, and people with lived experience of food insecurity. With the feasibility study complete and $5 million out of $8 million in funding secured — including $1 million from King County’s COVID-19 recovery package and $4 million in federal funding from Sen. Patty Murray’s office — the County has all but stepped aside, Food Lifeline has moved into a fiscal sponsor role, and the community-led committee is guiding the food hub forward.
“Right now, we’re looking at making sure we’re getting good community input around the needs,” said Ray Williams, director of the Black Farmers Collective and member of the advisory committee. Given the strong justice and equity lens that most community organizations bring to their work, this period of community engagement is aimed at ensuring the South Seattle Community Food Hub is meeting people’s actual needs, including those often overlooked.
“We are making sure that individuals and organizations that have not been included in the current food system structure have been included at the table,” said Yamila Sterling, food systems support program manager for Solid Ground and fellow committee member. In particular, that has meant talking to small-scale farmers as well as many of the mutual aid and hunger-relief organizations that emerged during the pandemic.
Already, this engagement has deepened the vision for what the food hub could be. Williams notes that a commercial kitchen wouldn’t normally be found in a food hub like this, but through their engagement, that space emerged as a clear community need. Moreover, while the main goal of the food hub is to help hunger-relief organizations store food and coordinate their efforts, it has become clear that the food hub could help Black and Brown farmers grow their businesses as well. Both Williams and Sterling mentioned that the food hub could help collect produce from small growers that big buyers could purchase in bulk at a fair price for the farmers.
Of course, before that clarified vision can be realized, other questions still linger. Among them: Who will lead the renovation to completion? Who will share the responsibilities of owning and operating the food hub when it opens? And how will they share those responsibilities?
Answers to those questions are emerging.
Within the next few months, the all-volunteer advisory committee will hire a full-time project lead who will take responsibility for guiding the renovation forward, including securing the remaining $3 million of funding needed to build out the space.
Soon, the committee will also look to hire a consultant who will help shape the shared governance model for the food hub.
No matter how it’s governed, Sterling makes it clear that the food hub is about three things. “It’s about community. It’s about inclusion. And it’s about love.”
This article is funded in part by an Environmental Justice Fund (EJ Fund) grant through the City of Seattle’s Office of Sustainability & Environment (OSE).
Syris Valentine is a Seattle-based freelance writer who focuses on climate change and climate justice. Their work has appeared in Grist, YES! Magazine, Daily Dot, and The Urbanist. When they’re not writing, you can find Syris taking long runs around Green Lake, browsing the nonfiction stacks in the Central Library, or having hot debates about climate action with friends. You can follow them @ShaperSyris on Instagram and Twitter.
📸 Featured Image: The new South Seattle Community Food Hub will provide cold and dry food storage, a commercial kitchen, and food processing space. Made possible by King County and Food Lifeline, the food hub will be a big step in fighting food insecurity in the South End. (Photo courtesy of King County)
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