Take a trip down Rainier Avenue to find every kind of cuisine scattered around Rainier Beach in stores and restaurants — combinations of meats, veggies and beans piled on everything from injera to corn tortillas.
But with a new light-rail expansion in the fast-gentrifying neighborhood, community activists are trying to address the neighborhood’s goals of solving systemic unemployment and poverty while preserving its community and vibrancy.
Some local activists think the answer is food.
“You can bring any person to the table around food,” said Patrice Thomas, strategist at the Rainier Beach Action Coalition (RBAC).
The community is using the momentum of a developing Seattle to push a grassroots project of neighborhood transformation with the Food Innovation District, a plan to revitalize the space around the Rainier Beach lightrail station, connect neighborhood resources and ultimately create a hub of food, education and business.
In 2010, 15 members of the community gathered together to update the Rainier Beach neighborhood plan.
“Pretty quickly, what is usually an exercise in what we need to do — sidewalks here and lighting here — turned into something else because it was Rainier Beach and because people’s aspirations were different,” said David Sauvion, who was a part of that 18-month-long planning process and currently serves as the co-chair of RBAC. The volunteer-led advocacy organization is heavily involved in the Food Innovation District, which also examined interconnected issues such as housing, transportation and job access.
Residents looked within the community and realized the neighborhood was abundant with opportunities in the food sector, thanks to organizations including the Rainier Beach Urban Farm and Wetlands, the culinary arts program at Rainier Beach High School, learning gardens and P-Patches. These programs, and the creation of a center with the capacity for more, have the potential to fulfill community goals such as job creation and food accessibility.
“Lots are bigger in this part of the city, and a lot of people grow food at home because it saves them money,” Sauvion said. “So this idea of thinking about how we can turn what people do anyway into something that can bring in extra revenue [made us] look at those assets and see there is already a structure in place.”
With Rainier Beach’s existing infrastructure, the project has been broken up into two overlapping ideas with many facets: the Food Innovation District, a neighborhood effort to thread together businesses, education and community programs, and the Food Innovation Center, a physical space to carry out this work.
The center aims to be a place where jobs and education thrive around food programs such as a commercial kitchen used as a business incubator to provide skill-learning opportunities and mentorship to small food businesses. The plan also includes areas for greenhouses, food banks, community centers and farmers markets — all elements that hit upon every vocation opportunity within the food industry.
Organizers hope the center will be adjacent to the Rainier Beach lightrail station — a nexus of opportunity because of its close proximity to Boeing, the airport, and the Interstate 5 corridor.
The neighborhood is one of the most diverse areas in Seattle, and home to many immigrants. Rainier Beach also has twice the unemployment rate of the rest of the city, Sauvion said, and has higher poverty rates as well. These factors are forces to driving home the point that a plan like the Food Innovation District and Center is essential for the neighborhood as Seattle continues to expand.
The Rainier Beach Food and Farm Hub was launched last year as a partnership with a variety of local organizations including SEED (Southeast Effective Development). An abandoned fish cannery was transformed into a site for food-related businesses, alongside the office for RBAC. Seattle Tilth, Seattle Farm Corps, Juicebox and Wow Chocolates all make up what can be considered a miniature Food Innovation Center with on-site production, packaging and distribution. “It runs the gamut as far as the type of manufacturing and food-related jobs that are housed there,” RBAC strategist Thomas said. “[At the Food Innovation District] we want to see something like that to scale. We want to see 3D printers, people decaffeinating their beans. We want to see food-related jobs in the most — this is corny — innovative way.”
RBAC and community organizers are working toward ironing out the specifics, including who will take ownership and which neighborhood business will be involved. Political advocacy is the next step to garner support from Seattle City Council and ultimately from Mayor Ed Murray, Thomas said.
Organizers hope that these efforts will remain focused on the community, despite the need for support from city officials to move forward. Sauvion said it would be easy to bring in big businesses and anchor stores to the project, but that would be missing the point.
“We really want the people in this neighborhood to feel empowered by it and bring their entrepreneurship skills and ideas to it,” Sauvion said.
“Ultimately for RBAC, we are really keen on not doing things to people or for folks but with folks,” she said.