Shaking up the Local Food Scene
by Carolyn Shea
In a rural Puget Sound community, one Greener has turned her passions into growing a healthy new enterprise.
In a small Snohomish County strip mall not unlike countless other strip malls across America, something extraordinary is taking place.
An innovative venture housed at the shopping center, North 40 Farm Food, is shaking up the local food system.
North 40 is a community food hub centered in Stanwood, Wash. Its retail market, Salt & Thistle Provisions, opened this spring to deliver the bounty of the region’s foodshed to resident locavores.
The hub, part of a growing national trend, is the brainchild of Melissa Turkington ’08, a native of nearby Camano Island with an M.Ed. in student affairs administration (WWU) who realized her love of food outweighed her passion for higher education.
Evergreen was a major influence in setting me on this path. If I had gone somewhere else, I might not have had the courage or skills to do it.
Having previously held a variety of food-service jobs over the span of a dozen years, she turned to baking instead, running her own small business, Plume Bake Shop, out of her home. Demand for her cakes and breads soon outpaced her kitchen’s capacity. When she investigated what it would take to expand and move into a larger storefront operation, she discovered that the costs and regulations were formidable. “I would have had to buy a place or travel to a commercial kitchen an hour away.”
“I didn’t have the money to grow, so I started looking further into the food industry,” said Turkington, who holds a B.A. with a concentration in film production and gender studies from Evergreen. “I’ve always been interested in social justice and I did a lot of research. I went down the rabbit hole and found the USDA’s Local Food Promotion Program, one of the very few grants open to private businesses.”
In her search for information, she also came across the concept of food hubs, an emerging trend in organizing food systems to strengthen local and regional markets. “Once I learned about them, I thought, ‘This is exactly what I want to do!’” she said. Concerned about the problems facing her rural community, she aspired to playing a meaningful role in helping its people and protecting the integrity of its food supply, environment, and towns. Starting North 40, which she launched in April 2014, was a way to combine two of her passions: good food and social justice.
Food hubs, which are cropping up all over the nation, deal with the logistics of bringing food from local producers to local consumers, be they families, schools, grocery stores, restaurants, or hospitals. The hubs provide the infrastructure and management that sellers don’t have the time, skills, or resources to handle—services such as storage, processing, distribution, and marketing. While they come in a variety of forms, most food hubs serve as a drop-off point for area producers and a pick-up point for customers wanting to purchase food from local sources—a rapidly growing group.
Last year, Turkington applied for a grant from the new Local Food Promotion Program (LFPP) to develop the North 40 hub in the Stanwood-Camano Island region. While the area is located within driving distance of many farms, it lacks a well-developed local food supply chain. The purpose of the federal grant program is to “support the growing organic industry and local and regional food systems,” according to the USDA.
Last October, Turkington’s project received a $98,700 LFPP grant, good backing for a big vision. North 40 “will serve a two-county area,” she said. “It has 2,500 farms, so there’s a ton of potential.” Already signed on are three local farms that “grow a diverse array of crops, from potatoes to ginger, all throughout the year.” She expects the number to at least double by the end of the two-year grant period.
The motto of North 40 is “50 miles, 50 acres, 50 percent,” which describes the radius the food hub covers in northeastern Snohomish and eastern Island counties, the types of farms involved—50 acres or less—and the amount of each food dollar farmers get to retain, 50 percent. (The food dollar, a USDA measure, breaks down the costs of producing and selling food in the U.S., from farm to market. The average share that goes to farmers nationally is less than 16 percent.)
Salt & Thistle Provisions is set up like a country store off State Route 532—the roadway that stretches from I-5 to Camano Island. The facility’s other half is an 800-square-foot community kitchen, a collaborative workspace where classes will be held, and people can prepare, package, and label food products—and get help and education in running their businesses. Thus far, these businesses include bakers, an apiarist, and makers of jams and ice cream. Because of the layout of the premises, “People can go straight from processing to the storefront, from the kitchen to the customer,” Turkington said.
North 40’s services include access to the commercial kitchen; assistance with business incubation and marketing; and gaining USDA GAP (Good Agricultural Practices), non-GMO, and organic certifications. Participants also get membership in the food hub’s brand identity program, “Port Susan Grown,” a trademarked label for easy recognition on store shelves and a sign of local provenance and geographic pride. Port Susan is the bay between Camano and the mainland.
Planning the food hub meant that Turkington had to educate herself about farming, a field she wasn’t too familiar with. She found a mentor at the Port Susan Farmers Market and “got linked with entities involved in agriculture,” she said. “It’s been exciting and terrifying and gratifying, but it’s all worth it. It’s what I want to do, and I enjoy the learning curve. Helping people is the most gratifying part, keeping people employed, and helping the community thrive more than it is right now.”
“Evergreen was a major influence in setting me on this path,” she said. “If I had gone somewhere else, I might not have had the courage or skills to do it.”