Food insecurities exposed by COVID-19 in Washington

A task force addresses weaknesses and inequities in the food system.

  • Christina Tingling weeds in her garden in Chimacum, Washington. Though her family has grown food in the past, they revamped their fallow garden and invested in dozens of chickens and four pigs, for the sake of food security in case of potential disruptions from the pandemic. “Even though we live in an area with robust local farms, we know they, alone, can't feed the whole Quimper peninsula, so we are doing our part by planting and raising more than we need to share with our coworkers and neighbors if needed.”

  • From left, Denny Schafer, Cheryl Lowe, Claire Eike and Kelly Nyby prepare a bed for planting at the Port Townsend High School Garden. Each school in the district has a garden where students learn to grow food (on hiatus due to school closures), and the produce gets incorporated into school meals. In the summer, the produce is donated to the food banks. “These types of programs allow families and kids to see, we can do this at our house, we don’t need to have some huge farm to produce food for our families,” said Jennifer Kruse, the health teacher who teaches classes in the garden.

  • Raul Espinosa fixes a planter while other food bank garden volunteers prep and water raised beds at Raincoast Farm. The farm, which is primarily an orchard and vineyard, donated the space of its vegetable garden for the food banks this year so that the space could be used to feed those in need. One of the volunteers, Mary Hunt, who created the Feed Jefferson County Map that outlines growing and food resources in the area, said, “For years we've been trying to do food security prep, and now we’re in it. People did it because it was nice to do, and now we have to.”

  • David Seabrook waters plants in a greenhouse that he shares with his neighbors on his property in Chimacum, Washington. He served on the Food Supply Unit for the coronavirus response with the Department of Emergency Management in the county which tracked whether supply was adequate enough to meet demand for food. “One of our objectives was to focus on long-term food resiliency," he said. "Which is basically disaster preparedness.”

  • Farming and gardening tools on David and Karen Seabrook’s 8-acre property in Chimacum, Washington.

  • Members of the Rosewind Community work together in their shared garden on a Wednesday. All of the community members are 50 and older, and expressed that the benefit of the garden, especially during a time of social distancing, is social interaction. Their Monday night dinners and weekly community meetings have been canceled, so being together during gardening is the only time they get to socialize.

  • A volunteer prepares food for distribution at the Port Townsend Food Bank.

  • Kathy Ryan, the Food Bank Farm and Gardens of Jefferson County president, prepares bundles of herbs harvested at the Quimper Grange food bank garden, which donated more than 2,500 pounds of food in 2019. She volunteers at three of the food bank gardens as well as the Port Townsend food bank, which allows her to guide the gardens towards growing produce that food bank recipients are eager to eat.

  • Karen Seabrook organizes seeds in the seed bank on her 8-acre property in Chimacum, Washington. Karen and her husband, David, are both very involved in what they call “community food resilience” – running food bank gardens, managing a seed bank, heading up food resiliency task forces on corona virus response teams, and growing as much of their own food as possible.

  • Shannon Minnihan, the lead cook for the district, and Joanne Mackey prepare chicken salad for student lunches that will be distributed around the district. It was state-mandated that the schools continue to provide lunches to kids qualifying for free and reduced lunches during the pandemic, and most schools went to a pre-packed meal system. But this district was able to continue from-scratch cooking. “We’re still trying to do as much scratch cooking as we can and not give the kids as much processed food if possible,” says Minnihan.

  • Roger Beachy, who’s been volunteering at the food bank since 2012, delivers food to a family waiting in their car.

  • Rochelle Raines hands Lucian Hegler, 4, a lunch prepared at Salish Coast Elementary School. It was state-mandated that the schools continue to provide lunches to kids qualifying for free and reduced lunches during the pandemic, and about 50% of students in Jefferson County qualify. The cooks are able to incorporate produce grown in the school gardens, as well as locally-grown food, into the meals because they do from-scratch cooking. “Our district realizes that food is a social justice issue, and you know that we have food insecurity, and one of the ways we can help kids get a leg up is if we have healthy food,” says Stacey Larsen, the school district‘s Food Service Director.

  • Christina Tinling and Jess Norton who own Wildflower Landscaping, have expanded their garden at their home and office in Chimacum. They got 24 birds, chickens, turkeys and geese this year, in response to the potential food distribution disruption. Now that they aren’t as worried about food, they’re still not worried about overproduction because someone will have a need, whether it’s the food bank or their neighbors.

  • Michele Minor serves up a salad with her son, Jakob Minor, and his girlfriend, Marcela Wallace, that they harvested from their backyard. Michele last grew food 17 years ago with her own mother, but this year she says, “I saw the possibility of a shortage of fresh stuff, so we decided to grow a garden.”

  • Blaise Sullivan eats on the front porch of her yurt while her dog, Lula, runs around. She has lived in the area for 2.5 years and works for the Jefferson Land Trust as the Conservation Assistant.

  • Karen Seabrook hauls seed potatoes to plant in a garden on the outskirts of her property that they share with the neighbors. There they plan to plant potatoes, lentils and other farinaceous foods that can be stored long term. The potatoes were salvaged from a farm, which chose to plant different crops due to the lack of restaurant purchases that resulted in an overflow of potatoes. Seabrook manages Swan Farms, one of the food bank gardens, as well as a seed library, which has had more than 50 additional members this year. “You can grow your own crops, but save your seeds, it’s so easy,” she says, noting the benefit for crop diversity, food resilience and community resilience. “Seeds were gone from commercial locations, and I didn’t think I’d see that happen in my lifetime.”


 

To reach Jefferson County, Washington, on the eastern edge of the Olympic Peninsula, most people take a ferry or the floating Hood Canal Bridge. Blackberries line trails, fruit trees flourish, and locals collect clams and crabs along the beaches. Small-scale organic produce is sold at farmers markets and through Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs).

The coronavirus pandemic tested this growing agricultural community and exposed its weaknesses and inequities. With an estimated three days’ worth of food on grocery shelves, people were forced to wonder what would happen if they had to rely solely on their local food systems.

Fortunately, some had already been pondering the question. The possibility of an earthquake or disaster disrupting the regular food supply prompted community groups to begin collaborating in 2006. Though processing capability and storage are still barriers, the nine Food Bank Farm and Gardens have become key to supplying the four local food banks with fresh organic food.

Now, a Food Resilience Task Force has formed to try to connect the food systems with the public utility district, so that the land’s bounty is accessible to all. “It’s as much about building community as it is about growing food,” says Dave Seabrook, who managed the Food Supply Unit of the Covid-19 emergency response team. “You’re not really food-secure unless your community is food-secure.”   

Brooke Warren is a freelance editorial and commercial photographer based jointly in Colorado and Washington state. Her work has been published in the Guardian, High Country News, Wired, CPR, Trail Runner and other outlets. Follow her on Instagram. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.