Grassroots effort helps revive farm support program
By STEVE BROWN
If legislators approve $250,000 in the state budget to resurrect the Washington State Department of Agriculture's direct marketing and farm-to-school programs, it will be because of a groundswell of support.
Neither the current nor the past director of the Washington State Department of Agriculture initiated it, nor did anyone in the agency, said WSDA communications director Hector Castro.
"It was community advocacy groups talking to legislators," he said. "It was plenty of folks in agriculture who want to see them restored. It was school districts across state who have an interest."
When a tight state budget eliminated the Domestic Marketing and Economic Development program in 2011, the move to revive it began immediately, supporters said.
"Folks were shocked that the programs were cut in the first place. They were really successful and critical to their success," Patrice Barrentine, who was the program's direct marketing coordinator, said.
After Barrentine was reassigned as education and outreach coordinator for the Office of Compliance and Outreach, her work was limited by the requirements of the federal specialty crop grant she operated under. She now helps by explaining market requirements, food safety requirements and retail food codes, "but I can't assist with production. There's no flexibility with a federal grant."
She still gets phone calls and emails every week from people upset by the elimination of the program.
"They needed the service," she said.
Momentum grew as groups like Tilth Producers of Washington, Cascade Harvest Coalition and the Washington State Farmers' Market Association worked to restore the programs.
"What is unique here is how children's and hunger advocacy groups such as Within Reach and Children's Alliance teamed up with agriculture NGOs to ask for funding," she said.
One group in particular organized the effort to bring the needs to the legislators' attention.
"That was our issue," Ellen Gray, executive director of the Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network, said.
The WSDA programs had been building relationships between farms and schools and providing technical support to farmers, she said.
"We need these programs back to increase kids' access to healthy food and to help farmers increase local sales and expand food production," she said.
Well over a hundred farms, farmers' markets, anti-hunger and social justice groups, children's and public health advocates, school districts and farm organizations endorsed a plea to the Legislature, seeking $500,000 to fund one full-time-equivalent position for each program for the next two years.
Organizers took their request to legislators, and 42 representatives and 21 senators signed letters in support, which were sent to the committees drafting the 2013-2015 state budget.
"We're delighted the Legislature recognized the importance and value of the programs," Gray said. "These are critical not just to economic viability and job creation, the Farm-to-School program gets food into schools where we see so much of the nutritional inadequacies.
"We live in this incredible state that generates all this food, and we have these hunger issues. We produce both hungry kids and obese kids."