Whatcom County is home to a rich and resilient food system. Bordered by the Cascades to the east and the Salish Sea to the west, this region’s lands and seas are stewarded by farmers, fisherfolk, ranchers, and artisans.
And while farming is often a solitary endeavor, marked by long hours in the field or at sea, at the heart of this agricultural community is a true spirit of collaboration, comradery, and collective growth.
Whatcom Community Foundation (WCF)’s Millworks project seeks to build upon and strengthen the networks that already exist within the local food system. Slated for development in two phases, Phase 1 (projected for an April 2024 opening) includes family/workforce housing and an early learning center. Phase 2 will be anchored by a Food Campus.
The Food Campus will serve a unique role in the local food economy, supporting Whatcom County farmers to create value-added products and supply local restaurants. A commercial kitchen will be available for small business owners (including food trucks and catering services), as well as nonprofit food programs like Meals on Wheels. In addition, this phase will encompass the WWU Small Business Development Center, a new statewide employee-ownership resources center as part of a nonprofit collaboration hub, co-op office spaces, and a public gathering and event space.
In addition to these tangible and technical benefits to the local food system, the Food Campus will provide something that’s a little harder to measure – the impact of connection. As Mauri Ingram, President and CEO of WCF, shares, “Since the pandemic, we have a more acute awareness of how important it is for us to stay connected as humans. And it’s just as true for organizations as it is for individuals. What’s so compelling about Millworks is that it provides an opportunity for people to be together, sharing successes and challenges. The cross-pollination that happens in these environments is going to be incredibly valuable and sustainable.”
WCF has seen the power of this cross-pollination in similar food campuses they’ve visited across the country. “Thanks to a grant from the USDA, we’ve done some touring to get a sense of what other communities are doing,” Ingram explains. “We went to San Francisco, Detroit, and Chicago to look at a wide range of operations in those places. In Chicago we visited The Hatchery, which is this huge incubator facility. They have more than fifty kitchens that allow people to move through different stages of incubation until they’re ready to launch and find their own independent space. We’re really trying to learn from all these folks.” There were certain elements from The Hatchery that the Community Foundation believes will be a good fit for a space in Whatcom County. “They have a belief system built into their model,” Ingram says. “They want it to be this reciprocal experience. If a food business there is just starting out, they’re going to get a lot of technical support. But if you’re a larger corporate entity – and they have the full spectrum present in the facility – you have to be willing to share your experience with less experienced entrepreneurs. They’re intentional with who they allow to be a part of the facility, because they want to know that people are going to be there for the whole reciprocal experience.”
The Whatcom County food system is already one of reciprocity and collaboration; this project will seek to strengthen and build on existing foundations. “There are so many incredible anchors that help ground and support the local food system from Bellingham to Lynden,” Ingram says. “That’s a huge advantage here – the ability to have partners collaborate. Our nonprofit sector is also a strength of this community. We work together well, and that’s known well beyond the borders of Whatcom County.”
Whatcom County is poised to integrate a facility like the Food Campus. While the pandemic interrupted initial planning and development for the project, it also highlighted core values and partnerships. Ingram shares, “The timing of this project is both favorable and not. Obviously, right now the cost of capital is high, which isn’t optimal. But we’re working around that in some creative ways as well. We find so many communities recognizing the core value of food – its basic necessity, but also the way it brings people together, connects cultures, connects people to their identities, and is a huge economic driver even though the margins are often small.”
Relationships within the local food system have already demonstrated their ability to rise to meet emergent needs in Whatcom County. “One of the things that was piloted during the pandemic between Bellingham Food Bank, Bellingham Public Schools, and Common Threads Farm was the Farm-to-Freezer project,” Ingram recalls. “Everybody’s usual markets had shut down. Farmers were left with all this product about ready to come out of the ground. The Food Bank had received a grant from the USDA, and they wanted to repurpose that money, which was initially intended to buy prepackaged food. Instead, they proposed they buy fresh, local produce, have it processed into soups, stews, and sauces, and then distribute that through food banks and school districts. WCF played a small role in helping to support a proof-of-concept document, because one of the things we heard from everyone was that they wanted this to continue, but it couldn’t continue in the model it was developed in.”
Currently, the Community Foundation is looking at how to operationalize the Farm-to-Freezer project, incorporate it into the Food Campus, and turn it into a viable model that will supply farm-fresh food to food banks, school districts, and other institutional providers like childcare centers, rehabilitation centers, and senior centers.
This is just one of many projects that WCF hopes will be keystones of the Food Campus. Others include retail space, cold and dry storage, processing facilities, business incubation, and food courts or carts that will be open to the public. WCF’s goal is to be under construction by the end of 2025 pending completion of the permitting process, and then have businesses in before the end of 2027.
The Food Campus is an ambitious undertaking, but one that the Whatcom County food and farming community is well-prepared to support. It will fill certain gaps in the food system as well as build upon the unique strengths of this region – collaboration, connection, and a deep desire to serve and nourish those who call this place home.