Nurturing Roots farm in Beacon Hill spreads volunteers across the urban farm on Thursdays and Sundays. Even in the age of coronavirus distancing, people come to the farm from in and around the Beacon Hill neighborhood, which has become a northernmost and privileged South Seattle neighborhood, from Rainier Valley and as far south as Renton.
“There are those moments where it’s a wake-up call,” said Nyema Clark, who runs the farm, “and every wake-up call has an up and a down.”
First for the downer: COVID-19 is that wake-up call, in more ways than one. COVID’s contagious nature and resulting distancing measures are disturbing complex food systems. Global food supply chains are intricate, and as workers fall ill, we face possible shortages of staples and, now, meat. The surplus overflow that usually stocks food banks and emergency food services is virtually nonexistent since farmers need to focus on supply markets that will make a profit.
For Food Lifeline, a food pantry supplier in Seattle’s South Park, a normal day pre-pandemic meant truckloads of tomatoes, potatoes and other fresh staples would come to the warehouse ready to be repackaged into family-size portions by volunteers. These packages would then be delivered to food pantries around the region, providing nutritious choices for food-insecure families.
“Emergency food supply is part of our mission, whether it is natural disaster, political unrest, a pandemic,” said Mark Coleman at Food Lifeline. “We are always trying to be stocked for that to be a prudent reserve of food.” While this is Food Lifeline’s constant aim, the food bank is scrambling to adapt to the pandemic.
Food Lifeline procures food from surplus stockpiles; they usually receive 50 million pounds of surplus food a year, most often from grocery stores. That supply has nearly dried up.
Coleman says Food Lifeline has pivoted entirely to shelf-stable items. Costs have gone up tenfold, and there are not enough volunteers to help package food.
Food insecurity is rising as millions of people file for unemployment, joining the households that were food insecure before the pandemic. Coleman says that right now they have been able to process 100,000 boxes of food a week. But to meet the growing demand, Food Lifeline needs to fill 300,000 — they are scaling up this week, thanks to a warehouse donation from Prologis and volunteer assistance from the National Guard.
Coleman says Food Lifeline is worried about how to reach out to vulnerable communities, people of color and those who live in food deserts and are reliant on public transport. While wealthier households still have grocery store options for nutritional foods, low-income and food insecure households are left with dwindling choices based on what food pantries have in stock. The food system starkly privileges the wealthy and doles out leftovers to the rest.
Failure of centralizing
The global networks that grow, process, package and shelve food at the grocery store might create huge quantities of food, but have complicated links. A contagious and deadly virus like COVID-19 directly attacks those links because the links are people.
“The reason we are starting to see the weaknesses in our food system is that people are getting sick: farm workers, people who work in meat-processing plants, people who work in grocery stores,” food systems expert and University of Washington Department of Environmental and Health Sciences lecturer Yona Sipos said. “And now that there is more demand for people to get paid a few dollars more an hour — deemed to be essential workers — that is putting a massive strain on the whole system at large.”
Sipos sees opportunities to shift from large food-growing models to small and mid-size local farms. Gov. Jay Inslee listed workers who support farmers markets and produce stalls as essential, backing the vital nature of the small and mid-size farms in Washington. These farms have fewer links in the supply chain and can continue to source food during times of crisis.
Small urban and mid-size farms can do this because of something called agroecology — a farming system that mimics the interdependent relationships that exist in nature. That contrasts with monocrop farms of products like corn and mass amounts of poultry and beef — farms requiring massive amounts of water, pesticides and fertilizer. Sipos explains that when farms follow the agroecology method, they eventually need fewer inputs like fertilizer and pesticides.
In other words, smaller, localized farms have the potential to replenish themselves. They are sustainable and change the game for access to fresh, nutritious food.
“When we couple agroecology with community ownership, then we start to be able to move beyond food security into a realm of food justice and food sovereignty,” Sipos said.
Involving the community in growing food can also influence how we think about food in the first place. A shift from thinking about immediate food security to food sovereignty ensures that people of color and low-income communities have the same access to make decisions about and grow their own sustenance.
Urge to personalize
Emergency Food Network serves food pantries in Tacoma’s Pierce County and is facing the same increased demand and lack of volunteers as Food Lifeline. Director Michelle Douglas says that EFN is finding new ways to distribute food to communities that need it most, provide culturally relevant foods and work with cultural organizations. For example, they recently partnered with the Puyallup Tribe to provide 500 families with boxed meals. Families could drive into a pick-up site and load up on pre-packed boxes.
EFN isn’t wholly reliant on surplus foods, though. They have acres of land on Mother Earth Farm. Usually, prisoners from the Washington Corrections Center for Women come help with planting and harvesting, but that isn’t the case lately. With a handful of staff and volunteers, EFN is supplying fresh produce in their pre-packed boxes.
Something else is happening, too. People want to grow food in their own yards and on their windowsills — wherever they can play with light and space.
“I think people can take action,” Douglas said. “There is an opportunity … to grow food for yourself, for our neighbors, and food for your food bank. Right now, we are asking you to take pressure off the system to bring more food into the system.”
Douglas says EFN is also working to get plant starts to people who want to start their own gardens.
Community-centered urban farms, like Nurturing Roots, are seeing a trend toward home farming as well.
Standing outside amidst growing saplings and shoots, green foliage and fresh soil at Nurturing Roots farm can provide an island of calm. “For a moment, you also get to heal listening to the outside world,” Clark said.
Many people leave the farm feeling uplifted.
The response to COVID-19 has to be equitable, Clark said, providing everyone with access to each stage of food production. So far, that is not the case.
When infrastructure falls through, the disparities between those who can and can’t afford things like toilet paper and fresh produce are unmistakable. The system will not provide for vulnerable populations, communities of color, food-insecure households and those who have historically been sidelined.
“This has drawn a major magnifying glass on the fact that individuals need to be self-sufficient.” Clark said. “Self-sufficiency is something our community lacks.”
The way Clark sees it, as businesses shutter and the pace of life slows to a trickle, people are left with time they didn’t have before. Now, they want to start cultivating their own gardens and nourishment.
She is making take-home boxes for people who can’t participate in the farm’s spring activities. The boxes will have cards in different languages with instructions on how to plant seeds and harvest crops, along with materials to get started.
Nurturing Roots is also working with Clean Greens based in the Central District to bring fresh affordable produce to food-insecure households with CSA subscription boxes at a subsidized price.
These kinds of actions, whether buying from local farms or taking initiative to cultivate one’s own garden, create an opportunity not just for reliable and secure food sources but a societal shift in how we think about food access. COVID-19 is revealing the necessity of such a shift.
It is one that needs to happen upstream as well, Sipos said, on a timeline that looks beyond the current crisis. When we grow locally, we become part of our own food supply chains, which allows for decision-making and action. Food sovereignty is vital when the system falls apart.
Kamna Shastri is a staff reporter covering narrative and investigative stories for Real Change. She has a background in community journalism. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @KShastri2
Read more in the Apr. 22-28, 2020 issue.