Vashon Maury Food Bank steps up efforts to grow its own food

Kebbie Bedard and Rhea Enzian hoe a field at the food bank’s new farm on Wax Orchard Road. - Amelia Heagerty/staff photo
Kebbie Bedard and Rhea Enzian hoe a field at the food bank’s new farm on Wax Orchard Road.
— image credit: Amelia Heagerty/staff photo

Peals of laughter punctuated the sunny evening as Vashon mothers and their daughters cultivated a freshly tilled plot of land with farmer Jen Coe on Sunday.

The mother-daughter group — a dozen moms and kids — played and chatted together even as they worked hard, planting seeds, laying drip-irrigation lines and furrowing rows of dirt at a Wax Orchard farm surrounded by deer fencing. Nearby, the first rows of crops — cabbages, kale, beans, broccoli, beets, leeks and radishes — showed their leafy crowns.

But they weren’t working to feed themselves or their own families. Rather, the mother-daughter teams are the first Island group to volunteer in an ambitious effort by the Vashon Maury Community Food Bank to provide fresh food to those who might otherwise go without.

The food bank received a $25,000 grant from United Way of King County to launch the project. This spring, Amy Greenberg and Chris Robison offered up a half-acre of their land to the food bank.

Now, said food bank director Yvonne Pitrof, the small Vashon organization has entered a brave new world, joining the ranks of a handful of other food banks in the region using agriculture — rather than just money and food drives — to help feed the hungry.

“The potential of what we can do with this is ... huge,” Pitrof said.

The Wax Orchard farm doesn’t represent the food bank’s first foray into food-growing. A year ago, the food bank established a large produce garden at Sunrise Ridge next to the food bank building. And in the fall, the organization ran a “pilot” farming program, seeing if it was possible for Coe and volunteers to farm a quarter-acre.

Now, with that experience under their belts, food bank staff and volunteers are stepping up their efforts to a half-acre — their largest to date. Their goal is not simply to help feed the 180 families who regularly come to the Vashon food bank. They also hope to add to the region’s stream of fresh produce, supporting food banks throughout the Puget Sound region.

Historically, vegetables have come to the food bank in cans or freezer bags. And even when produce fills a shelf or two at a food bank, it’s usually not fresh — it’s the produce that grocery stores had planned to throw away, Pitrof said.

But with more people paying attention to the nutritional content of their diets, it’s important to offer food bank clients healthful fresh food, Pitrof said.

“Over the years, I’ve seen the shift from coming to the food bank and taking whatever to coming in and reading the labels and caring what’s in your food,” Pitrof said. “More and more, I hear from people if they can afford to feed their family good, solid, healthy food, they prefer that. ... To be able to take home fresh produce, it’s fabulous.”

“Now everyone’s trying to eat better, and the people who go to the food bank should be able to, too,” added Coe, sitting in the grass next to the Wax Orchard farm. She’d just finished tilling a section of dirt in preparation for the mother-daughter group coming that evening.

The food bank is able to garden and farm thanks to grants from United Way of King County, which have enabled the nonprofit to pay for supplies and hire Coe, a seasoned farmer, to work at the garden and farm two to three days a week.

Once the farm starts producing in earnest, Vashon food bank employees will deliver a portion of the farm’s bounty to another south King County food bank on Tuesdays, when employees are already driving to the mainland to pick up food for the Vashon organization. That produce will then likely be shared among several mainland food banks.

“This is an innovative project,” said Lauren McGowan, associate director of ending homelessness at United Way of King County. “This is just a great project that allows the community to access fresh, healthy produce, and they’re able to share that produce with other south King County food banks as well.”

She said many food banks that can cultivate food gardens are doing so, but that most aren’t able to farm on a larger scale.

United Way gave the Vashon food bank a $10,000 grant last year to begin farming. It recently awarded the food bank a $25,000 grant to work at the half-acre farm on Wax Orchard. The funds came from United Way’s donor-funded Response for Basic Needs program, which focuses largely on hunger relief.

“We like to make an investment that will continue to serve a community for years to come,” McGowan said. “We were happy to be able to participate in this. ... I think it’s a fantastic project. I love that it’s engaging volunteers. I love that it’s not only helping the residents of Vashon but also providing produce to the south King County food bank community.”

The moms and daughters who volunteered at the food bank on Sunday night found it a rewarding experience, said mother Kebbie Bedard.

The group is a recently formed small social network of moms and their 10- to 12-year-old daughters, and Sunday’s experience helped gel the group.

“We planted bean seeds; we planted leeks; we furrowed; we hoed and laid lots of water irrigation and did lots of weeding,” said Bedard, whose 10-year-old daughter Bella also helped out at the farm. “It was such a fulfilling experience in so many ways. We just had a lovely time, and we got so much accomplished together. ... We’re helping others, and that’s what it’s about.”

Coe, Pitrof and others hope more Islanders will step up to volunteer at the fledgling farm. For now, Coe has only planted as much produce as she and a few helpers can harvest. But if the volunteer farming force swells, as Coe hopes it will, she and volunteers will plant more produce and be able to feed healthful food to more people.

“This is perfect with what we want to do at the food bank,” said Mary Fitch, the food bank’s volunteer coordinator, as she dropped off a batch of homemade caramel brownies for the mother-daughter volunteers. “We’re so happy.”

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