Circular food systems buoy Washington agriculture, reinvigorate local economies

In agriculture, land and water degradation is a real concern. Also of concern is lack of access to locally produced, high-quality foods, either because they are unaffordable or because they are destined for other markets.

Washington State University Extension’s Marcia Ostrom is working to address those problems. As Food Systems Program director, she leads WSU Extension’s efforts to develop regionally interconnected food systems across the state. A particular focus of hers is ensuring that the benefits of Washington’s bountiful food systems are more accessible and equitable.

“The term ‘circular food system’ describes a way to source food that is protective of our land, water, people, and ecosystems while reinvigorating local economies,” she said.

A farmer tends to a green, leafy crop.
A farmer tends to a ripening crop. WSU Extension creates partnerships with farmers across Washington state on programs like the Farm to Food Pantry. These types of programs reduce waste and direct nutritious foods to those who need them.

Washington is an agricultural powerhouse, but its highest value crops are produced for national and global export markets. Major disruptions to global trade often result in supply chain and market vulnerabilities for both farmers and consumers.

Ostrom and fellow Extension educators support the regional farmers who harvest and produce the quality vegetables, fruits, meats, and dairy products that many local residents are demanding through programs like Cultivating Success and Farm Walks. These types of programs create opportunities for farmers to innovate ways to build more secure and profitable markets.

“We’re working toward closing the food system loop as tight as we can,” Ostrom said. “That means local farmers taking care of fragile ecosystems, creating food supply chains that minimize waste, improving the availability of healthy regional foods, and supporting the livelihoods of many, many Washington farmers.”

To combat food insecurity and food waste, communities across northwest Washington pooled their resources to open a community processing kitchen in Clallam County.

A WSU Extension coordinator washes kale in a processing kitchen.
Sallie Constant, WSU Extension farm to community coordinator in Clallam County, washes and preps nutritious, recently harvested kale.

The new kitchen, a partnership between the Port Angeles Food Bank and WSU Clallam County Extension, is a success story of sharing resources with multiple counties and partners while closing the food system loop.

“So many different outcomes are now tied to this kitchen,” said Clea Rome, director of Clallam County Extension. “Our farm-to-school program just launched, several school gardens are being established, and we’ve secured multiple grants and contracts to purchase food from local farmers.”

Locally grown food and imperfect or donated goods and produce are transformed by the kitchen into fresh, convenient, ready-to-go meals for food bank clients, and soon, local schools and hospitals.

“The work we do in food systems not only helps keep our small family farms viable, but couple that with the idea that this food is now going to the most food insecure people in our area,” Rome said. “To me, that’s really gratifying.”

Further information

This CAHNRS News article talks about the negative effects and scale of food waste. If you’d like to become a team member with the WSU Food Systems Program, simply visit their website and sign up for their listserv to get started.