Seth Walser was suddenly looking at a surplus.
“We had all these lettuces and all these radishes and no idea what we were going to do with them,” he says. “We had grown more than we could sell, and we were wondering what to do.”
It seemed like he had two options: feed the surplus to the chicken and ducks or add it to the compost pile. Either way, it wasn’t ideal.
“We’d much rather see all that food go into the hands of individuals who need it,” says Walser, co-owner of Backyard Market in Elk, north of Spokane. “Share Farm came along and approached us with Farmers to Families. It was just a lifesaver.”
Walser is one of about two dozen regional farmers whose products are getting to the tables of families in need, thanks to the efforts of two Spokane-based entities and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. The Inland Northwest Farmers Market Association (INWFMA)—in conjunction with Share Farm—was awarded USDA funding through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act to procure, package and deliver boxes of fresh produce and other foods throughout Spokane.
“Much of it is hyper-local,” says Stephanie Watson, the project manager at the INWFMA, which has been working with Share Farm. The Spokane-based company aims to connect local farmers and food producers with consumers through an online marketplace. “For customers, it’s cool because they can get the freshest possible produce from local farmers,” Watson says. “For sellers, it’s cool because it’s another channel to help optimize their sales. They can offer something even if they only have five of any one particular item.”
The INWFMA, a collective of neighborhood farmers markets serving the Greater Spokane Area, functions as the fiscal sponsor of the USDA contract, which offers the option of renewal every two months through December for a total of up to $1.4 million.
“Whether or not it’s sustainable for the long term, it really has opened all of our eyes to what the USDA can get done on a local level,” says Rob Allen, founder and president of the INWFMA as well as the Fairwood Farmers Market, where Walser is a vendor.
One of the three owners of Backyard Market, he was just beginning to explore wholesale opportunities with local restaurants when the pandemic hit. The novel coronavirus affected his retail plans, too. Farmers markets limited the number of vendors they would accept for the 2020 season, forcing some to refuse new vendors. “It was super iffy,” Walser says. “We’re a new venture. So, for us, it wasn’t about filling contracts that we used to have. It was all of these restaurants that we thought we were going to try to get business with were shut down. All of a sudden, all of these avenues that we felt we could pursue just weren’t there.”
The Farmers to Families Food Box Program is designed to not only help curb food waste and feed the hungry, but aid farmers and food producers who suddenly found themselves with a surplus. Because of the pandemic and subsequent restaurant closures and shut-downs of other food service-related businesses, such as hotels, many have been unable to sell their products through their regular channels.
The USDA is partnering with suppliers who’ve been significantly impacted by the closures to purchase up to $3 billion of fresh produce, meat and dairy products. The first round of funding totaling up to $1.2 billion took place from May 15 to June 30. The second phase—from July 1 to August 31—saw a similar amount.
Monies go toward food purchases as well as administration, including logistics like leasing temporary warehouse space. After each phase, the Farmers to Families Food Box Program is evaluated to determine whether funding will continue. The Inland Northwest Farmers Market Association, in partnership with Share Farm, was recently approved to continue serving the community.
During a mid-June site visit, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue lauded the success of the local program, particularly its door-to-door delivery system. Each week, some 70 to 80 volunteers help pack and distribute food boxes, dropping them off directly at people’s homes. The entire operation, Watson says, “takes less than two hours. We’ve gotten really efficient. Rather than requiring ‘customers’ to pick up the boxes, which has led to long lines in some areas using that distribution model, we mapped routes for the drivers and connected them with apps. Within 20 to 40 minutes of packing, we’re getting food delivered to people’s doors, something most food programs aren’t doing.”
More than 50 million boxes—and counting—have been distributed to families in need nationwide. Through their joint agreement, Share Farm and the INWFMA pack and distribute some 350 to 400 boxes per week.
“This is something that just makes sense,” Watson says. “It’s showing an investment in our farming community, and it’s giving us the opportunity to show that if we put that kind of investment into our farmers it could change the future. We’re able to feed people who are in need right now.”
According to a recent report from Northwest Harvest, Washington’s statewide hunger-relief agency, up to 2.2 million people may be food-insecure in this state during the peak of the COVID-19 crisis.
Spokane-area nonprofit organizations, including food banks, may submit the names of families in need. Families also may request a food box. Requests are filled on a first-come, first-served basis and, Watson says, regularly max out.
Each box weighs at least 20 pounds, per the agreement with the USDA. Most weeks, though, boxes average between 21 and 24 pounds, Watson says. Contents depend on what farmers have available. Offerings vary throughout the season and include fresh fruits and vegetables such as onions, greens and radishes as well as cheese, yogurt, chicken and pork.
Share Farm and the INWFMA coordinate with farmers so that their products arrive right before volunteers begin packing boxes. “We’re sourcing the food, but we don’t hold produce,” Watson explains. “Share Farm is leveraging a ghost-warehouse model. We’re getting food directly from the farmers with the warehouse being the touch point.”
Adam Hegsted’s Eat Good Group provides warehouse space in Liberty Lake. Hegsted, a 2016 James Beard Award semifinalist, owns and operates several Inland Northwest restaurants, including Eat Good Café in Liberty Lake, Honey Eatery and Social Club in Coeur d’Alene, Republic Kitchen and Taphouse in Post Falls, and Wandering Table, Incrediburger and Eggs, Yards Bruncheon and Gilded Unicorn in Spokane. A co-founder of Share Farm, Hegsted also serves as the company’s chief strategist.
“It’s nice to be able to—number one—provide food for people. That’s something fantastic that we’re pretty excited about and want to be involved with,” Hegsted says. “Right now, (Eat Good Café) is closed, so we’re able to facilitate the boxes. We don’t know what the future holds, but it would be great to keep going with this and get more funding from the federal government or at the state level.”
Meantime, Hegsted says, “I hope that this is helping some of the farmers who haven’t had that great of a year. That’s what this is all about: tying the community together and helping people. From mid-May to mid-August, Share Farm has delivered 6,500 boxes of food, which is approximately 130,000 pounds of food to those in need.”
INWFMA and Share Farm first contacted farmers and food producers that it usually works with, including Walser. The aim has been to partner with as many local growers as possible, Watson says, noting some come from throughout Eastern and Central Washington, such as Yakima, and as far away as California.
Through the Farmers to Families Food Box Program, they’re paid a wholesale price—up to $2.25 per pound—for fresh produce that otherwise might be left to rot. Specialty products, such as cheese, fetch a bit more.
Walser’s specialty: microgreens. He regularly sells them through Share Farm’s online marketplace as well as Backyard Market’s roadside farm stand. Founded in 2019, the 5-acre farm grows and the adjacent market sells greens as well as a variety of seasonal fruits and vegetables, including French breakfast radishes, golden beets, heirloom tomatoes, potatoes and sugar snap peas. He’s been offering curbside service during the COVID-19 crisis and says he feels “blessed” to be part of the Farmers to Families Food Box Program.
“Right now, they’re our only wholesale outlet,” he says. “It’s a great cause. Knowing that our food goes to families in need is very fulfilling.”