The South Sound Food System Network (SSFSN) – a regional collaboration of more than 40 food-related businesses, organizations and agencies – is working to educate our community about the economic, social and environmental impacts of our local food system. To learn more about this work, we’re getting to know a few of the network’s members.

Q: What is your role in the local food system and the South South Food System Network?

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The Thurston County Food Bank offers CSA style produce boxes to clients, thanks to partnerships with local farms. Photo courtesy: South Sound Food System Network

Robert Coit, Executive Director for Thurston County Food Bank: Our role is to reduce barriers that many low and moderate income families face when accessing food. Our efforts include gleaning produce from local farms, diverting good food from the landfill that is simply too good to waste, connecting families to other food resources and providing families with nutrition education. The Thurston County Food Bank is a founding member of SSFSN.

Tara Witten, SNAP-Ed Program Coordinator for WSU Extension Thurston & Lewis County: Our goal is to empower families to eat well on a limited budget. We teach them how to prepare nutritious meals and stretch their food dollars while also addressing opportunities to make the healthiest choice the easiest choice in our environment. My favorite tip to eat well locally is to seek out farmers markets that offer match programs for EBT cardholders (it’s free money!).

Katie Rains, Executive Director for GRuB: GRuB’s programs range from building backyard gardens to offering school credit-based youth development programming. We steward a 2-acre farm in West Olympia, where we grow more than 10,000 pounds of produce each year. I serve as co-chair of SSFSN. Prior to that, I was the co-chair of the Thurston Thrives Food Action Team.

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The Evergreen State College Organic Farm is one of many local farms offering opportunities for community members to learn about the local food system. Photo courtesy: South Sound Food System Network

Cathy Visser, Senior Nutrition Program Director for Senior Services for South Sound: I have been involved with the Thurston Thrives movement and former Food Action Team as a representative of senior hunger and Meals On Wheels advocacy. I am now the SSFSN secretary and the liaison between the SSFSN and Thurston Asset Building Coalition.

Q: Why does everyone deserve to eat well?

Robert: The Thurston County Food Bank believes good food is a basic human right, that hunger touches all members of our community and crosses all sectors and perceived boundaries.

Tara: Everyone deserves the opportunity to thrive, and eating well is vital to thriving in all aspects of our lives. Children who arrive to school hungry aren’t ready to learn…over half of SNAP beneficiaries are children under 18 or seniors.

When everyone eats well, there are far-reaching benefits to the entire community. Better nutrition results in lower healthcare costs. If more people consumed the daily recommended servings of fruits and vegetables, this would have a positive impact on demand for local produce, which in turn supports our local farmers and economy.

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GRuB, SNAPed, and the Thurston County Food Bank all offer cooking classes to teach folk how to prepare local, healthy foods. Photo courtesy: South Sound Food System Network

Katie: Part of GRuB’s vision is that everyone is nourished by healthy, sustainably grown food. We believe that good food is a basic human right. We believe that growing, eating and gathering around healthy food is a simple and powerful way to connect people to each other and to important work in our community.

Cathy: Having the means and ability to purchase, prepare and consume nutritious food improves quality and quantity of life for everyone, plus saves money spent on healthcare for society as a whole. Providing Meals On Wheels to homebound seniors, for example, saves $50 Medicaid dollars for every $1 of federal funding spent on the program.

Q: What do you see as some of the barriers in Thurston County to people eating well?

Robert: It has been our experience that logistics, in particular transportation and storage, creates the biggest access barrier, it’s not the quantity or quality of the food available.

Tara: More than one in three South Sound households don’t have enough money to pay for their most basic needs. While a majority of SNAP recipients who can work, do, their wages are simply not enough to live on.

A 2013 Harvard study found that healthier diets, such as those rich in fruit, veggies, fish and nuts, cost about $1.50 more per day than less healthy diets. This adds up to $550 additional annual cost per person – a significant barrier for many families.

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Helsing Junction Farm is one of several local farms that accepts EBT benefits through its CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program. Photo courtesy: South Sound Food System Network

Katie: The greatest barriers are time, money and in some cases, skills. Meeting a household’s basic needs with little money usually requires a great deal of resourcefulness and persistence. The art of preparing food straight from the garden or farmer’s market has received less attention since the uptick of highly processed foods. Some folks need to relearn this precious art, which fortunately is a fun thing to learn!

Cathy: Eating well requires that a person have the money, time, motivation/energy, transportation, nutrition knowledge and cooking skills to buy, prepare and serve nutritious local foods. A weakness at any of those points can cause people to default to fast food, processed food or other easy and cheap options.

Q: How do you believe SSFSN will make a positive impact on people’s ability to eat well?

Robert: We believe that a community is stronger together and that through collaborations, strong sustainable partnerships are formed. By bringing non-traditional partners together, opportunities are created to find new solutions to old problems.

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Kirsop Farm is one of many local farms represented at the Olympia Farmers Market, a great place to purchase local food, EBT is also accepted at the market. Photo courtesy: South Sound Food System Network

Tara: I hope the Network’s campaign will help bring awareness to the wonderful programs and resources available in our community that empower families to eat well on a budget.

Katie: By connecting with other businesses, government agencies and non-profits, we are all better informed and have a shared understanding of the needs of our community. Here is one example of a positive impact that is a result of our participation in the SSFSN. After hearing from Senior Services of South Sound that our community’s seniors are the fastest growing food insecure population in the area, GRuB is now offering 20 free CSA shares to seniors and we’re donating food to Meals on Wheels as well.

Cathy: By expanding awareness and access to food resources among providers and consumers and increasing the knowledge of the benefits of buying and eating locally produced foods – the economic, environmental and health impacts.

To learn more about the South Sound Food System Network, their current campaign and the upcoming “Celebration of Sound Food Summit,” you can check out this past article and visit their Facebook page and website.

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