Food bank asks Olympia to create more community gardens as city considers urban farm park

Officials with the Thurston County Food Bank are asking the Olympia City Council to provide more community gardens to help increase access to fresh food as the number of people the nonprofit serves hits an all-time high.

Mackenzie McCall, agricultural resources supervisor for the food bank, said the food bank went from serving 55,000 people in 2016 to 62,000 in 2022, largely because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But she said they expect to see even more growth in clients this year due to the increased cost of living.

In 2023, the food bank purchased more than 43,000 pounds of food.

McCall said 42% of the people they serve are under the age of 18, and 33% of elementary students in Thurston County are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches because of their families’ low incomes.

She said the food bank has a number of agricultural programs aimed at recentering food security through food sovereignty. She said they enable people to have control over the way their food is produced, and access to healthy and regional food. One of the programs is the Olympia Kiwanis food bank garden.

McCall said the food bank also purchases food from local farmers, gathers from community fruit trees and more.

But farmers often find themselves in the lower income bracket the food bank serves. The county loses more farmland on a yearly basis, she said, and they’re seeing more farmers 65 years old and older, and fewer younger people getting into agriculture.

McCall asked the city council for more community gardens and spaces where people can grow their own food. There should also be increased access to plant starts, seeds and compost, as well as irrigation.

She asked for council support for farmers, specifically urban and socially disadvantaged farmers, including BIPOC, veteran, women, LGBTQ+ and disabled farmers.

McCall said there should be policies in place to make it easier for farmers to grow food in the city. One of the biggest barriers now is the cost of water and land.

Lastly, she said there needs to be more support for school gardens, as well as improved public transportation so access to these spaces and fresh food is as equitable as possible.

Urban farm park feasibility

The food bank’s requests came to the council at the same time it received an update on the plans for an urban farm park. There’s much support for the proposal from the public and the council, but there are a number of hurdles, including money and staffing.

Sylvana Niehuser, director of Parks Planning and Maintenance, is the project manager for an urban farm park study the city is conducting. She said the idea for the park stemmed from a 2020 city council request to protect farmland and mitigate the loss of farmland. That led to the formation of a farmland workgroup.

She said the group’s focus was on drafting policy that supports sustainability, conservation of agricultural land for farming, economic vitality of farming, and support for farmers.

The group made a number of recommendations which led to the city hiring AHBL, a landscape architectural firm, to conduct a feasibility study.

Craig Skipton, landscape architect with AHBL, said the feasibility study began with community engagement to gauge the public’s understanding of what an urban farm park can be. He also researched other agricultural parks around the country.

“We wanted to look and cast a pretty broad net to understand what’s going on in other places, and then help us inform what this could possibly be for the City of Olympia,” he said.

Skipton said an online survey that was sent out to Olympia residents received more than 200 responses. In those, he found many asked for youth education programs, event spaces, a commissary kitchen, tool share program, and more. He said farmer training, youth education and climate adaptation were paramount in the design of the park.

“They want a place to learn, and in this case, learn about farming and food production,” Skipton said. “They also want a place that feeds them, and restores them — that was a big deal.”

Where could an urban park go?

Niehuser said the feasibility study looked at a wide range of options for a possible urban farm park site. It considered city-owned and privately owned property, and distance from existing community gardens and parks.

She said one of the thoughts was the farm park could serve some of the areas where the city’s park standards aren’t currently met. The city is working to provide a community garden within a half-mile walking distance.

One of the highest-ranking areas of need is in the northwest corner of the city near Kaufman Pond. Skipton said there are several locations on the northeast side of the city, including near Bigelow Lake and in the Bay Road corridor.

Skipton said there are a couple of locations around Grass Lake Nature Reserve and a couple near Watershed Park and Trillium Park that could work as well.

But an urban farm park will cost anywhere from $3 million to $15 million, depending on the features and location. The feasibility study said several potential partners were identified but nothing has been solidified.

According to the study, “the city cannot lead the development of an urban farm park at this time, given several other large-scale investments that the city is making. To advance the urban farm park over the next five to 10 years, the 2028-2034 Parks Plan must prioritize this investment.”

Skipton said the city will be launching public engagement on updating the Parks Master Plan in 2026, which will include more information on the urban farm park. In the meantime, he said city staff can work with potential partners to solidify at least one of them.

According to the study, there are funds set aside for a land purchase, but developing and operating costs are more constrained.