On a Wednesday in early September, a team of five was busy at the Puget Sound Food Hub Cooperative warehouse packing boxes of fresh produce grown by area farmers.

In each box: 2 pounds of carrots, 1 pound of green beans, 1½ pounds of beets, one head of cabbage, one head of cauliflower, one head of lettuce, two ears of corn and a sprig of sage.

At the end of six hours, the team had packed 1,000 boxes, which the food hub delivered to organizations to distribute to families in Skagit and Whatcom counties.

From June through mid-September, the food hub distributed nearly 19,000 boxes to families in need as part of a federal program that began this spring to address hunger and support farmers, said Andrew Yokom, general manager at the food hub, located on Best Road west of Mount Vernon.

Yokom said the food hub was awarded contracts totaling $400,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Farmers to Families Food Box Program, funded through the CARES Act, the federal COVID-19 relief package.

The food hub worked with Viva Farms and Ralph’s Greenhouse to pack and distribute the boxes.

Yokom said the USDA paid $22 for each of the weekly produce boxes, which included six to eight items to feed a family of three to four. The 19,000 boxes over three months amounted to about 200,000 pounds of locally grown produce, he said.

“It was a staggering amount of local produce that was purchased,” Yokom said.

The boxes were distributed by Community Action of Skagit County and the Bellingham Food Bank.

Cole Bitzenburg, food manager for Community Action, said the nonprofit moves between 500,000 and 650,000 pounds of food a month throughout the county — about double what it did before the pandemic. It received about 6,500 boxes — about 39,000 pounds of fresh produce —through the USDA program.

The food hub, a member-owned cooperative of about 50 farmers in Skagit and Whatcom counties, helps small farms connect with large commercial buyers by providing a website to list products, cold storage and distribution.

Yokom said the food hub had the perfect model for the food box program because it already had ties with local farmers and the infrastructure to put the boxes together.

"It was a pretty incredible the amount of sales that local producers were able to achieve because we had the capacity to seek it out, coordinate, pack and distribute it,” he said.

David Bauermeister, executive director of the Northwest Agriculture Business Center, a Mount Vernon-based nonprofit, said the program was successful in part because of the food hub's ability to pivot from normal operations to the food box program.

“It supported farmers and got a lot of food to a lot of people in a hurry,” he said.

Staff at the Puget Sound Food Hub Cooperative pack food boxes on Sept. 9.

The food hub sourced the produce from about eight area farms, including Hedlin Farms near La Conner.

In early spring, as farmers were planting their crops for the season, Hedlin Farms discussed with the food hub and the Bellingham Food Bank ways it could help meet a growing need for food, said farm manager Kai Ottesen.

“We planted additional crops in anticipation of an increased need at the Bellingham Food Bank … in light of the economic impacts of COVID-19," he said.

Ottesen said the Bellingham Food Bank provided initial funds for the farm to ramp up production, and the USDA provided funds when the food box program began.

“We stepped way up on cauliflower, beets, cabbage and winter squash,” he said. “Those were not volumes of any of those crops that we would have planted without a market established.”

Hopewell Farms in Everson also supplied produce for the food boxes.

Lisa Dykstra, the farm’s office manager, said the farm experienced a dip in sales from restaurants and educational institutions when the pandemic began. There was also uncertainty over fresh produce sales at grocery stores, she said.

“We didn’t know if there was going to be an abundance of crops we weren’t able to sell,” she said. “It was really nice for the food hub to offer the support, and to say ‘we’re all in.’”

A third round of the USDA Farmers to Families Food Box Program began this fall. Yokom said the food hub submitted a bid but did not receive a contract for the program's third round, which will conclude Oct. 31.

— Reporter Jacqueline Allison: jallison@skagitpublishing.com, 360-416-2145, Twitter: @Jacqueline_SVH

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