Food Bank and community plan chat for stronger local food system

Do you care about the way food is grown, distributed and consumed in western Washington County? A meeting early next month in Forest Grove is just for you.

Members of the Dairy Creek Community Food Web and representatives from the Oregon Food Bank plan to host a Food Education Agriculture Solutions Together (FEAST) meeting in Forest Grove Feb. 8 to identify problems in the local food system that hinder awareness, efficiency and an abundance of healthy food for all people.

The public, community and school leaders and those involved in the food industry are invited to discuss ways to build a healthier and more equitable and resilient food system, while identifying obstacles to this goal.

Jessica Abad, who is serving an 11-month stint as a Resource Assistant for Rural Environments AmeriCorps member, is conducting a grass roots community food assessment in rural western Washington County to snap a big picture image of the local food system — land, labor, inputs and infrastructure involved in feeding a population, including the production, processing, packaging, distributing, consuming and disposing of food.

Abad is currently collecting information through interviews, surveys and events, such as the upcoming FEAST.

Although her assessment still sits in the beginning stages, Abad has identified a few prominent issues through talking to large- and small-scale farmers, independent rural grocers, local food pantries and community groups.

In talking with farmers Abad has noticed they "all continue farming for the pure joy of producing food and being able to work outside on the land,” but struggle with the low income such hard work provides. The farmers Abad has talked with also grapple with understanding the current market and adapting to support consumer demands.

Abad discovered that small-scale farmers worry about what to plant and how to market their produce through Community Supported Agriculture or farmers markets, as well as serving both low- and high-income people .

Finding a reliable workforce — especially for seasonal tasks during harvest time — is an ever-present worry, farmers told Abad.

“One potato farmer I spoke with said because potato and grape harvests happen around the same time, he struggles to get committed seasonal employees because the grape harvest is more pleasant work and usually able to pay better,” Abad said. “Another larger-scale farmer stated that he has seen a decline in the number of available workers these days and that he believes people are finding more consistent work to be able to afford living in Washington County.”

The discussion will open with the five priorities identified in Forest Grove’s 2011 FEAST: feeding hungry people, supporting new farmers, establishing a year-round farmers market and community kitchens, developing school gardens, nutrition education and farm to school programs and creating appropriate land use policies (the Urban Growth Boundary preserves some of the most fertile land in the nation that lies in Washington County). 

DCCFW members held a discussion about a year-round market Thursday, Jan. 16, after their monthly food film screening. The discussion drew business members, potential vendors, and new and long-time Forest Grove residents.

Robin Lindsley of the DCCFW said several ideas came to the table, including support for a “Fill Your Pantry” event that happens once a year in the Forest Grove Grange.

Abad recently met with Pukhraj Deol of the Oregon State University Extension to discuss the Washington County Food System plan, a collaborative effort in its early stages between Washington County and OSU.

Deol said OSU and County partners recently presented the plan to the county commissioners. The next steps include identifying community partners.

The plan focuses on three pillars — healthy people, flourishing local agriculture and a strong local economy.

In the early draft of the plan, the healthy people pillar aims to maximize the consumption of local food in schools, increase awareness about how environment shapes food choices, provide healthier food and beverage choices in public service venues and other worksites, collaborate with community partners to educate populations at-risk of chronic conditions that may be prevented or reduced with consumption of healthy food and explore strategies to incorporate access to fresh, local food in planning and community design efforts.

“We are identifying the direction we want our isolated efforts to go toward in the future so everyone is moving toward the same main goals,” Deol said. “There are so many different efforts going on, we want to make an inventory.”

In Washington County, some see a divide between rural and urban sectors, “but we just have such a range,” Deol said. “We want to bring people together so we don’t think of each other as competition, but so everyone recognizes their role in the community food system.

“Urban gardeners might seem insignificant, but they not only produce a portion of their own food ... [they] are likely to make their children more aware of where food comes from and they might also be more conscious consumers more likely to support local farmers,” Deol said. “And urban gardeners who keep bees in their yard are helping provide pollinators, which are essential for food production on every level in surrounding communities.”

Deol will be at the FEAST Feb. 8, participating in the discussion and answering questions.

“We are hoping discussions will lead to education efforts and awareness,” she said. Currently, the plan focuses on the county level, but as efforts continue more specific goals for certain areas will develop.

Alejandro Tecum, director of Adelante Mujeres' Adelante Agricultura, is currently training to be a Master Gardener. Tecum will help with outreach in western Washington County and bilungual community food programs such as the Grow It series this spring at the Forest Grove library, which he'll translate into Spanish and present.

“The basic goal of the community conversation is to revisit the issues that were present in 2011, discuss how we have worked to solve the issues of the food systems since then and reinvigorate people to work to improve the food system of the Forest Grove area,” said Abad.

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