With a rooftop garden, a supermarket setup, more volunteers and more options, it’s a new food bank for a new city.
SUMMER’S STRAWBERRIES and tomatoes were long gone, but Hannah Duffany still had thriving crops ready for harvest: stubby magenta carrots and blond parsnips, leafy rainbow chard and crinkled dinosaur kale, beets with young greens still tender enough to eat.
The farm manager broke out gloves and clippers for the day’s crew.
“Have you ever done any gardening before? Do you know about the food bank and what we do here?” she asked Nathan Wacker, a University of Washington student.
“Well, I understand food banks,” he replied.
This one, though, is different.
Duffany manages Rooftop Roots, a rooftop garden occupying about 2,000 square feet of growing space atop the University District Food Bank’s new home.
For most of its 35-year history, the food bank had chugged along in a cramped church basement. Born in the years of the Boeing bust, its physical limits meant people in need lined up around the block with no shelter from prying eyes or driving rain. Trucks parked in a narrow alley to deliver supplies, volunteers passing canned goods box by box through a 4-foot-by-3-foot window.
Indoors, “Two people couldn’t pass each other in the aisle,” recalls volunteer Emily Kane.
That was Old Seattle.
Then came the current boom years, accompanied by a housing shortage, a homelessness crisis and a two-tier flood of newly moneyed residents and newly hungry ones. With no room to expand, board members decided to change the food bank as radically as the city.
They launched an audacious $3.6 million campaign for a 5,800-square-foot new home. And in the summer of 2016, they moved — a few blocks by the map, but miles ahead in their mission.
FROM A DISTANCE, the University Commons building is indistinguishable from any other condo-mixed-use-four-story project lining New Seattle’s streets.
By the front gate, differences come into focus.
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The first hint is the gate itself, a metalwork design by Northwest artist Nikki McClure, beloved for her paper-cut illustrations embracing families and food. The branching apple tree she crafted brims with abundance and warmth.
The food-bank facilities occupy the building’s first floor and roof; the nonprofit Low Income Housing Institute oversees 49 studios and apartments on the other floors, including 20 set aside for homeless young adults. Street Bean Coffee Roasters, a job-training program for homeless youth, operates a coffee shop with a separate entrance on the ground floor.
The actual food bank looks more like a supermarket than anything else, one with limits on some categories but no price tags. It’s a big departure from traditional setups, where people in need line up for prepacked bags of canned goods.
The market format, which the food bank piloted in its old location, “allows people to make more choices,” says Joe Gruber, the longtime executive director. It’s practical: There’s not much point giving people food they can’t or won’t eat, or that they don’t know how to prepare. And it upholds a main food-bank goal: respect and dignity.
In the new building, “We tripled the walk-in cooler and freezer space,” Gruber says, allowing crews to accept perishable donations in quantities they once had to turn away. Bigger preparation areas and heavy-duty tools like pallet jacks allow more people and more efficient work, as with the volunteers sorting through 500 pounds of corn, pulling off the messy outer husks and silk on each ear. An eye-level refrigerated display case in the market allows clients to choose different types of dairy products, an incomparable step up from the small tabletop cooler that had been a nightmarish traffic jam in the old space.
The move made other benefits possible. In addition to the covered waiting areas, there’s now a private counseling room where people can discuss needs beyond their next three days of meals (the amount the bank tries to provide), such as signing up for food stamps or finding health insurance. There’s a kitchen where the food bank hopes to offer cooking classes and nutrition services. There’s an office for the staff (four full-time people and three part-timers, plus about 100 volunteers per week). There’s even a small cookbook collection set up by the librarians next door.
“We’re now able to think, ‘What is the root cause?’ ” of client needs, Gruber says. “How do we create an equitable system, and be a champion, and help them champion themselves?”
Part of the answer, they decided, would be 50 feet in the air.
FOUR THOUSAND milk crates form a virtual field in the rooftop garden, stacked two high, with the top 2,000 lined with landscape fabric and filled with planting mix. Beehives and compost bins take up the corners of the 6,000-square-foot deck. Hand-painted signs mark plantings like beans and beets, with cheerful bug-busting nasturtiums and calendula flowers sprouting among the stalks.
The first year’s crops emphasized plants that regenerate, such as collard greens, though plenty of room remained for annuals like a major tomato crop. Hardy vegetables that stored well were another obvious focus, Duffany says, as were foods that people could enjoy without having a kitchen to prepare or cook them.
Lessons came with every step of the first year. Pea vines were more manageable than sprawling squashes, they learned. Wall space can be used next year for berry canes or grapes.
“I think Brussels sprouts are going to be a tough one for us, because of the size of the bed,” Duffany says. “We’re still figuring out what works and what doesn’t work.”
The first year yielded more than 1,000 pounds of produce. Even that poundage doesn’t show all the benefits: Greens are light in weight but nutritionally dense.
Gardening at that level — farming might be a better word — takes serious labor.
“Our volunteers work so, so hard,” Duffany says.
Just preparing the crates for the garden took 20 volunteers, working five-hour shifts, more than two days. Harvesting a single one of the 24 beds earlier that week required five people working two-hour shifts.
To put it bluntly, why bother? Even though the garden relies heavily on donated goods and labor, it carries costs. Why not focus instead on fundraising and soliciting more traditional donations?
Generous produce donations do come regularly from many sources: vendors at the University District Farmers Market, P-Patch gardens, farms, grocery stores. The food bank purchases some staples directly, gaining discount prices through the size of its orders. But some things don’t come through reliably, or with appealing freshness, or at all.
“We never see garlic,” Duffany notes, a seasoning that “makes or breaks” so many cuisines.
Donations don’t always match up with the vegetables clients say their families are likely to use, leading to crops like the garden’s pak choi, a leafy green used in many Asian stir-fries. Crates of rooftop herbs overflowed with basil in the summer and, by fall, still showcased mint and sage and spikes of flowering lavender and hardy rosemary.
Smaller in quantity but high in symbolism were the initial jars of honey from the beehives, and the tiny, sweet rooftop strawberries from a handful of starters donated by a P-Patch. The crew harvested only about 10 pints this first summer, but, “How lovely and fresh is that?” Duffany asks. The delicate local berries needed only to be transported a matter of feet, so they weren’t moldy or crushed.
“And they’re spreading to where they might take over the whole box,” she says.
The rooftop yields only “a drop in the bucket” of the community’s needs, Gruber says. But it lets them do some things differently.
THE GARDEN ATTRACTS new volunteers who might not have gotten involved in other food-bank programs. Some are interested in the chance to learn new skills or in promoting food security and self-sufficiency.
“It was something concrete to do. It was feeling like you are doing something positive,” says Bryant resident Betsy Hanson, who kept at her garden work through long, tedious early-morning watering shifts in the summer heat. She was inspired to sign up after the 2016 presidential election.
It’s “the best volunteer job in the city,” says Cathy Englehart, a chiropractor who works near the food bank, clipping chard leaves as part of her regular shift.
And Wacker, the UW student, chose the volunteer shifts as part of a service-learning project for his Introduction to Food and the Environment class.
Additionally, the garden provides a way to teach more people about nutrition. The more they learn, in theory, the more the demand will grow for fresh produce, and the better off the clients will be. One summer collaboration with the Seattle Public Library brought families to the garden for activities and a chance to try different fruits and vegetables. Next year, there are plans for school-aged garden interns.
SHOULD — OR COULD — the project be a model for others?
Many food banks do have programs to bring in local produce, says Jenn Tennent, director of the Hunger Response Network at Northwest Harvest, a nonprofit food-bank distributor serving hundreds of programs throughout Washington. Often those food-bank supplies come from partnerships with P-Patches or programs like South Park’s Lettuce Link, as well as contracts with farmers.
“More than you think” have small on-site gardens, Tennent says, often in rural areas. But the University District has advantages that not all food banks can leverage, including the breadth of its collaborations.
Part of that comes from the nature of Seattle itself, with close-knit neighborhoods that “really see themselves as a full-fledged community, even though they are part of a larger city,” Tennent says.
Another part is the organization’s long history.
“We’ve been around a long time. People know us, and we put our faith in that,” says Megan Knight, who was president of the food-bank board when it voted unanimously — after considerable debate — for the expansion in 2013. It was a big step into unknown territory, including taking on a $230,000 mortgage on the property and incurring higher costs for necessities like lighting and maintaining the larger space.
Could the expansion have happened in the Seattle of 10 or 20 years ago?
Probably not, Knight says.
“There’s a community consciousness that has to be there for something like this to happen,” she says. “These kinds of organizations that are small but mighty don’t fly on their own.
“They need support from for-profit companies, government organizations, other nonprofits … all that stuff has to come together. Those things have really matured in Seattle.”
Maybe in the big picture there’s a model for the future.
In the smaller picture that day, Duffany was thinking about a different sort of maturation: picking globes of fennel and rutabaga in their prime, dealing with an aphid infestation that had reached the kale beds.
“Ugh, they’re evil!” she says.
More encouraging were the tiny two-leaved sprouts that poked above the soil. “That’s my favorite part of growing, the germination phase.”
Leaf by leaf, root by root, her crew finished piling bins high with the day’s harvest, then hauled it downstairs.
A separate group of volunteers — Kane and her children Isabel, 10; Olivia, 9; and 7-year-old James — took over.
“Who remembers how to do this?” Kane asked the children. Everyone did. They’ve been volunteering Thursday afternoons at the food bank for the past few years, speaking assuredly about its benefits and the relationships they’ve built there.
“It’s not every day you get fresh carrots,” Isabel said with approval, as James cleared an errant ladybug from piles they were cleaning and trimming.
After separating the vegetables into family-sized portions, the children delivered them to the supermarket area, where Chris Gaynes, 62, played the bongos as customers shopped. He lives in the on-site housing; he’s a client, and also a volunteer.
“I love this place,” he says. “It’s fresh. It’s good. It’s awesome. A true blessing.
“To come here and go shopping, with a shopping cart? Everyone gets to eat!”
It’s not everyone, but it’s more than before. The new food bank is about 20 percent busier than the old one, with its market area (about 1,200 families come through per week), a home delivery program serving another 130 families and weekend backpacks of food that go home with 500 students. It’s growth that couldn’t have been possible in the old space, Gruber says.
None of it — the garden, the bigger coolers, the new volunteers, the newly accessible supermarket — will solve problems that seem to grow even faster than the city. It doesn’t eliminate the root causes of hunger in America, or the rising need. Yet each bag of carrots that went into the baskets represents something more than one meal. A garden grows something beyond food.
“I think it feeds your soul and your body,” Duffany says.