Food doesn’t fall from the sky onto grocery store shelves. There are many different pieces (growing, processing, distribution) that form a food system. On Feb. 22, a group of 70 people from various parts of this chain met at Growing Our Future: The 2019 Food Summit hosted by the Clark County Food System Council and Clark College. A group that included farmers, educators, activists, chefs, planners and politicians met all day at Clark College’s Columbia Tech Center campus to discuss issues of local food production and distribution.
During the morning session, keynote speaker Jeff Swanson simplified the concept of creating a comprehensive food system by drawing two circles on the board — one demonstrating the first mile of food production, growing the food. The other circle showed the second mile, eating the food. He summarized the two diagrams as dirt and stomach.
Then, Chris Iberle of the Washington State Department of Agriculture explained the challenges to developing a local food system as fluctuations in the commodity market and trade issues, labor costs and shortages, shifting markets and a lack of affordable farm land. Opportunities include a growing population that needs to be fed, increase in vegetable acreage, and an increase in craft food businesses (restaurants, breweries) that are seeking locally grown food.
Dr. Erin Anders of Walla Walla Community College summed up the challenge to everyone present. “We are all in this together. It’s up to us and the people who are part of the food system to come up with solutions,” Anders said.
Gordy Euler, a retired senior planner for Clark County, explained the gaps in the planning piece of this system by drawing attention to the Growth Management Act. In his opinion, the problem is that this act required designation of agricultural lands but says nothing about protecting them. He explained, “No farm, no food.”
Counties can include protection of farmland and other requirements that would assist in the creation of an effective food system in their comprehensive plan under this act. Euler noted that the Clark County Food System Council started addressing food issues during the last planning process. He encouraged people who wanted to create an effective food system in Clark County to participate in the process of updating the plan in 2024.
In between the morning and afternoon breakout sections, participants with various perspectives sat, lunched and shared ideas and information. At my lunch table were two women were from REACH Community Development in Portland, a nonprofit devoted to creating quality affordable housing. They were interested in finding out how they can get fresh, local food to people in their housing program.
In addition, there was Mark Lopez of Gather and Feast Farm and Crave catering and Annalee Dammann, a farm apprentice at April Joy Farm in Ridgefield. Julie Rawls from the Port of Vancouver joined us. As we enjoyed the lunch of local food prepared by the Clark College Cuisine and Professional Baking programs, Lopez provided Dammann with information about his business model and some advice for starting and running a farm. Rawls gave a preview of her talk about the planned waterfront marketplace at Terminal 1 that she was going to discuss at a breakout session after lunch.
The afternoon sessions allowed for smaller groups of people to focus on specific topics. There were four choices for each of the two afternoon sessions. The first breakout session I went to was about second mile infrastructure in Clark County, led by Chris Iberle of the Washington State Department of Agriculture.
The Second Mile refers to getting local food to the consumer (earlier simplified by Jeff Swanson as “stomach”). The solution could be a food hub that allows for aggregation, processing, distribution and marketing of source identified food from local and regional producers. According to Iberle,” There are more than 300 food hubs in the country. They all look different.”
Holly Hansen, an organizer with the Clark County Food System Council, is leading a project to create a food hub in Clark County. Over the last year, there have been community discussions of the current food system in Clark County and the gaps that need to be filled. Stage One of the food hub includes a basic infrastructure for farmers (a central area with cold, frozen and dry storage). Stage Two includes commercial kitchens, centralized distribution and a network for producers and buyers. Stage Three is an increase in marketing services, a retail space, account management for farmers and wider distribution of locally grown food. Hansen is moving forward and hopes to have something concrete soon. She said, “My dream is to have stage one by the end of the year.”
In the second afternoon session, one of the breakout groups focused on the importance of local food in creating a sense of place and identity. Julie Rawls, from the Port of Vancouver, shared the port’s vision for a marketplace for local food at the old Terminal 1. She believes the original Terminal 1 structure still exists under the Red Lion facade. The plan is to re-create this original structure to create a space to showcase regional and local products, incorporate public art, create a public amenity for the region, tell the port’s history and create public open space. Rawls was inspired by a trip she took to visit Denver Central Market — a gourmet marketplace and food hall with an office for Denver’s chapter of Slow Food.
Food System Council member Sandy Brown was pleased with this year’s attendance of people who play different roles in Clark County’s food system. She explained, “Five years ago, it was a struggle to get different groups of people to come. Those people weren’t crossing the lines of their groups and when they got together they were silent because they didn’t know how to talk to each other.” That certainly wasn’t a problem at the Food Summit. Attendees left with some new ideas, new contacts and a renewed desire to go out and work to create a more comprehensive local food system for Clark County.
You can email the Clark County Food System Council at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rachel Pinsky can be reached at email@example.com. You can follow her on Facebook and instagram @couveeats.