On Monday, the Vashon Island Grower’s Association brought together more than a dozen island farmers and restaurateurs for a sit-down meeting at the Land Trust Building to better understand how eateries on Vashon can serve fresh, local produce to their customers.
Making deeper connections between them, said VIGA Board President Lisa Hasselman, is in the interest of the health and wellness of the environment and the community, and part of the mission of VIGA to promote greater access to quality food for all.
“VIGA [and] the Land Trust are trying to do as much as we can to support these small, struggling local growers, and one of the ways to do that is to connect them with these restaurants that are sourcing from local growers, supporting local businesses,” Hasselman said, “and any way we can do that together and share that information so that we can find ways that help them succeed, we’re just looking for those ways.”
Board member Catherine Johnson said one of the most illuminating points she learned during the meeting was that restaurants can actually process certain produce that growers normally can’t sell but is still high in quality and nutrition. That flexibility, said Johnson, can go a long way toward serving islanders while reducing waste. Moreover, there is an economic benefit to sourcing produce locally as well, said Johnson.
“Part of the mission of VIGA is to support the local agriculture economy, and then by more people buying locally on Vashon, that puts money in farmers’ pockets,” said Johnson. “But farmers can spend that money on Vashon, and then that then puts money in the pocket of other [local] business owners.”
Behind it all, said Hasselman, is Vashon Fresh, the online marketplace for locally grown and produced foods that first launched as a pilot in 2017 with support from the King County Conservation District. Hasselman believes it remains the right vehicle to facilitate the relationships that will make VIGA’s goals a reality.
But after competing with other priorities last year and taking a backseat, she said, now is the time to realize the platform’s fullest potential, figuring out how it can be made most worthwhile for those who use it. She also hopes to encourage more buy-in from the community.
“It really needs more people participating. We’re going to make a big push this year to communicate that it can be valuable,” she said, adding that shopping from groceries has increasingly moved online as preferences have changed.
Kitsap has the largest online marketplace for fresh food in the state, featuring more than 40 farmers and producers selling their food there, available for pickup later at one of several distribution sites. The question for Vashon’s own attempt to create something similar — and keep it going, said Hasselman — is whether or not the community is large enough to support it.
“But we’ve got the passion. We’ve got the community that really wants local food, and this is how we do it,” she said, adding that her family’s farm — Forest Garden Farm — is a Vashon Fresh success story, as their sales increased after they began using the platform.
“I just believe the community wants it. The community benefits from it, the farmers benefit from it. We’re hoping that businesses can benefit from it as a sourcing tool. So I just see it as a really useful way to satisfy these localvore desires. So we just need to put the time in to communicate that it’s there.”
Last weekend, islanders shared and presented much of their produce and artisanal creations at VIGA’s first winter farmers market of the year, filling the lobby of Vashon Center for the Arts with vendors and patrons who had arrived to sample and purchase goods and produce. Up for sale was an assortment of leather goods such as handcrafted wallets and bound notebooks, jewelry, clothing and obsidian wind chimes, in addition to dairy products such as whole milk yogurt, Fromage blanc and whey fed pork, and hot food roasted on sizzling grills outside.
Johnson said that VIGA is now considering several candidates for hire to become the new market manager after Perrin Meriwether stepped down amid a staff and board transition. She added that one of the goals of the market going forward will be to bring in more farmers to sell their goods and produce so the community has more varied choices.
“There can always be more,” added Hasselman. “We want more. We want more locally grown stuff, we want to help all these different efforts [to] get more locally grown stuff onto people’s plates.”
The next winter farmer’s market at VCA is Saturday, Feb. 1.