South King County communities work to improve food access

Guest post by Kara Martin, Program Director, Food Innovation Network.

“I want that one.” said the girl pointing. Not at a toy. Not at a cookie. But a purple carrot.

The farm stand at Matt Griffin YMCA in SeaTac offers fresh produce options to a community that is hungry for it. Photo: Sylviann Johnson

It was in this moment that organizers launching the first farm stand in SeaTac last month knew we were on to something. In the SeaTac-Tukwila community, accessing fresh, affordable local fruits and vegetables is very challenging as there are no local farmers markets or farm stands. It has repeatedly come up as an issue over the past several years through community outreach efforts, and the community is hungry for it. Meanwhile, there are significant health disparities in the community compared to other parts of the county. In the SeaTac-Tukwila community, diabetes rates are 130 percent higher than the county average, obesity rates are 150 percent higher and the incidence of hypertension is almost double.

This is why the Food Innovation Network (FIN) works to create opportunities for improved healthy food access. Partnering with the Matt Griffin YMCA branch, International Rescue Committee’s New Roots  and WSU Food $ense program, FIN now hosts a weekly farm stand at the Matt Griffin YMCA. Produce is purchased wholesale from local farmers and sold back to the customers with no mark-up. Located in the Y lobby and open to non-Y members, anyone is welcome to shop the farm stand.

The Food Innovation Network’s (FIN) mission is to enhance the local food system, increase access to healthy food, create pathways for success, and support resource and idea-sharing that engages the diverse communities SeaTac/Tukwila and South King County. We use a collective impact model to bring diverse expertise and organizational experience together in collaboration. Our network includes organizations, educational institutions, local government, and community members.

Critical to guiding and implementing the strategies is the cohort of Community Food Advocates. These committed leaders represent and conduct outreach to diverse communities in South King County; in the SeaTac – Tukwila community, 38 percent of residents are foreign-born and nearly 50 percent speak a language other than English at home. Up until this year, FIN had focused primarily on food business incubator programming that supports low-income entrepreneurs to launch their businesses. While this work comes out of considerable community interest and need, FIN advocates called out that we were falling short in “increasing access to healthy food” part of our mission.

Taking this to heart, FIN has initiated several food access projects this year. Thanks to the support of our funders, Public Health- Seattle – King County’s Partnerships to Improve Community Health (PICH) grant and Communities of Opportunity, a King County and Seattle Foundation partnership, we have seen this work come into fruition.

This past spring, the advocates participated in a Food Access training to learn about healthy food incentives and the eligibility requirements. Training included touring local farms and farmers markets to gain a better understanding where food is grown, understand how it gets to the market and the costs of farming businesses. This has helped the advocates with their outreach informing communities about opportunities such as using SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) benefits and Fresh Bucks, an incentive program that matches SNAP benefits at farmers markets. Recently reflecting on their outreach efforts, advocates shared it is the first time many of their community members have been to a local farmers market—some not aware that everyone is welcomed to attend these public markets.

This year we also began hosting Community Kitchen events. As lead cooks, the advocates have taught others how to prepare their culture’s traditional dishes. This free event brings community members together to cook and experience food traditions from different cultures. FIN is now partnered with City of SeaTac to host Community Kitchens on an ongoing basis. Our next event is September 27 (more details to attend here), and volunteers are always needed, including assistant cooks.

FIN_CommKitchens May 2017
Volunteers, including King County Public Health employee Seth Schromen-Wawrin (top right) prepare food for FIN’s May Community Kitchen event. Photo: Kara Martin

We have plans to expand the farm stand project next year as well. A second farm stand in Tukwila will be opened and we are working to accept SNAP benefits and Fresh Bucks. Next year, a majority of vegetables sold at the stands will come from New Roots market garden opening in Tukwila next year. The market garden will provide the refugee and immigrant growers a supplemental source of income while also improving food access in the community.

FIN has really just begun its work to improve access to healthy food. Through partner collaboration and continuing to work with the community leaders to identify and implement strategies, the SeaTac-Tukwila community have the opportunity to engage in the local food distribution system and to increase their ownership of that system.

Kara Martin is Program Director of the Food Innovation Network. She has been working on community-based food projects for over 15 years. Kara holds a Master’s Degree in urban planning with a focus on food systems and has worked on policy, community assessments and project development with governments and nonprofits in King County since 2007.

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