Healthy communities depend on informed, collaborative leadership across traditional boundaries. In Whatcom County, promising practices in cross-sector collaboration prove that we really can improve some of our toughest community health issues by working together.
For example, from meeting the needs of food bank patrons, to increasing the health of school children, the business, nonprofit, government and education sectors are sharing resources in creative ways to address both food security (having enough) and food quality (nutrition).
Partnerships leverage assets, build community
Compared to other Americans, Washingtonians are slightly more likely to face food insecurity, according to USDA data compiled by WhatcomCounts.org, an independent, non-partisan source for community health information. Food insecurity means people encounter barriers in accessing enough nutritious food to adequately support an active, healthy lifestyle. Locally, the recent Prosperity Project report “Experiences of Living in Poverty in Whatcom County” shows access to food continues to be a priority for people living in poverty. Emergency food ranked as one of the most frequently accessed of all of the services in the survey.
In response to the need, cross-sector collaborations are making an impact.
While survey respondents ranked local food access as “highly important” (on par in importance with living-wage jobs and affordable housing), they also ranked food assistance as “highly available” in Whatcom County. It appears nonprofit, faith-based and grassroots food assistance groups across the county are doing a great job of meeting a crucial human need—in partnership with businesses.
Every week, grocery stores, bakeries and restaurants provide 15,000 to 20,000 pounds of perishable foods to the Bellingham Food Bank, supplementing canned and dried fare for more than 25,000 households annually in Bellingham alone.
Haggen Food and Pharmacy stores, Cost Cutter, Food Pavilion, Community Food Co-op, Avenue Bread, Starbucks Coffee and Grace Café are just a sampling of the large and small corporations making a daily difference for community health, according to Bellingham Food Bank Executive Director Mike Cohen.
“Daily donations are important,” Cohen says. “Food banks have limited freezer and refrigerator space, just enough to store perishables for one or two days.”
So what does a food bank do when it receives nearly a week’s worth of perishable food all at once? Collaborate.
In 2005, Bellingham-based TransOcean Seafood contacted the Bellingham Food Bank with an offer to donate 15 tons of frozen seafood products—equivalent to one-and-a-half semi tractor-trailer loads. Fresh or frozen protein is in short supply for patrons of food banks, who usually rely on beans, canned meats, or peanut butter to meet their basic protein needs.
Instead of declining the donation due to a lack of fridge and freezer space — and falsely communicating that the community did not need it — Cohen called on trusted private sector partners. For more than a year, Bellingham Cold Storage (a top-20 county employer) increased the amount of space it offered the food bank, and Point Roberts AutoFreight transported the TransOcean Seafood to 12 anti-hunger programs throughout the county. The partnership provided nearly 25 percent of the annual protein used by patrons of Whatcom County food assistance programs.
In true collaborations, benefits flow both ways
While the owners and workers of businesses may feel great by partnering across sectors to meet community health needs, they often benefit, as well.
When area farms have more produce than they can sell, they contact the nonprofit Community to Community Development initiative Small Potatoes Gleaning Project, whose volunteers carefully harvest vegetables to distribute to local food banks.
Project Director Rio Thomas shared an example of the “symbiotic” relationship: “When beans are left on vines after the first harvest, new beans won’t grow. If we pick them, the next crop will grow and the farmer has more to sell. Folks who go to food banks get high-quality, local, organic, nutritious food. Everyone wins.”
“It’s exciting,” said Gretchen Hoyt, who with husband Ben Craft has owned Alm Hill Gardens for three decades. “We get to be in a business we love, provide living-wage jobs for our workers, and contribute to community health, which is really why we’re in business in the first place.”
Likewise, the local agriculture industry has benefited from an increased focus on nutrition in the Whatcom educational sector. Everson and Shuksan elementary schools are two of 25 in Washington to receive USDA grants to increase fresh fruits and vegetables in school lunches.
Participating in September’s “Eat Local Week” sponsored by nonprofit Sustainable Connections, all 26 schools in the Mt. Baker and Bellingham school districts will feature “Grown in Washington” menus. Good news, considering last year only 31 percent of eighth-graders in Whatcom County consumed the USDA-recommended five fruits and vegetables per day, according to Healthy Youth Survey data found on WhatcomCounts.org.
Bridging the sectors to address the economic and physical health of Whatcom County, Washington State University Whatcom County Extension is convening industry, social service agencies, local schools and universities, and community members to engage in a comprehensive Community Food Assessment.
The research will examine the county’s entire food system: producers and field workers, exports and imports, food security and access, individual nutrition and links to chronic disease, even food waste. For details, see: Whatcom.wsu.edu.
Share your promising practices
When addressing community health issues, we should start with solid research and information about needs and challenges. Next, we can become inspired by examples of successful cross-sector collaborations. Finally, each of us can become leaders in developing community health by sharing assets, and going further together than we could alone.
In the coming months, the Whatcom Coalition for Healthy Communities will showcase creative promising practices across the broad definition of a healthy community, which includes education, economy, arts, recreation, public safety, transportation, social and natural environments, and civic involvement.
Step into the spotlight: Contribute your cross-sector promising practices and “Click, Learn, Act” at WhatcomCounts.org, or explore community leadership opportunities at LeadershipWhatcom.org.
After all, a healthy community is up to all of us.