Snohomish County is working with local farmers to get fresh produce in the hands of those most in need.
Through its Nourishing Neighborhoods program, the county purchases food from local farmers, then distributes it to residents who might otherwise lack access to fresh produce at food banks or grocery stores.
Jason Biermann, the county’s Director of Emergency Management said during an online media briefing Friday that the program — part of the county’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic — is projected to run through the end of the calendar year. The $150,000 cost is being funded through the county’s $25 million share of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
The concept for the program was developed early in the pandemic, when business activities and distribution channels that farms usually rely on — such as sales to restaurants or at farmers markets — were interrupted by closures and downsizing. “If we can take the amazing produce, the fruits and vegetables that our farmers are growing right here in our backyard and give that directly to the people most at need, that was really important,” County Agriculture Coordinator Linda Neunzig said.
From there, it was a matter of identifying vulnerable communities and then connecting to those people at high risk for food insecurity. The fresh produce provided can help people with low incomes supplement meals of non-perishable goods that may be available at food banks and also assist residents with mobility or transportation issues that limit their access to getting groceries.
Biermann said that while the Nourishing Neighborhoods program was developed specifically due to the coronavirus, finding locally sourced produce is also an issue during other disasters, such as earthquakes or snowstorms.
Produce boxes are distributed throughout the county to inhabitants of various apartment complexes identified through a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) social vulnerability index, which is then combined with local data factors including high unemployment rates, rental housing assistance and areas designated to be “food deserts,” Neunzig said. Food deserts are locales where the population has limited access to fresh and nutritious foods because of their distance from a grocery store, food bank or farmers market.
“If all they can get to is a corner gas station and they’re buying a bag of chips and a soda and calling that a meal, we need to make sure that we can bring this product to them,” because it is not close by, she said.
Food distribution to the assorted locations takes place on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of each week depending on their different rates of need identified. Neunzig said that the program has delivered approximately 2,700 boxes of produce so far.
“We really are trying to make sure that we are having the highest impact with what we have available,” she said.
The food provided is grown locally, helping not only vulnerable community members but also farmers and the county’s economy. Snohomish farmer Vince Caruso helps put the boxes together and coordinate their contents with six other farms, which he said are mostly small, under 10 acres, and what most people would consider, “when you think of a family farm.” He said the money those farmers receive for their crops will in turn primarily be spent, and stay in, the local community.
Besides receiving financial assistance through the county program, Caruso said it is rewarding to hear the expressions of gratitude from people at the apartment complexes where the food is delivered. “It’s really nice when you’re leaving there and we’re pulling away the truck empty and everybody is still giving us thanks and messages of appreciation,” he said.
Neunzig expressed a similar sentiment about Nourishing Neighborhoods’ community impacts. “Just the other day I had a woman say to me, ‘Thank you so much for bringing this. I have health issues; I can’t get fresh local stuff like this and I need this product, but I can’t get it,’” Neunzig said. “She was so incredibly grateful to have fresh fruits and vegetables just for her health alone.”
Biermann said the county is continuing to review the needs fulfilled by the temporary program to see whether it could be extended beyond the current timeline, which could depend on whether Congress approves additional CARES Act funding in the future.
— By Nathan Blackwell