On Thursday mornings in the summer, chef Chris Johnson can be found making the rounds at the Skagit Valley Wholesale Market — a collection of a dozen or so vendors who congregate once a week in a Mount Vernon, Wash., parking lot.
After meeting with his local suppliers, Johnson goes back to his job as foodservice director at United General Hospital, Sedro Woolley, Wash., and creates a menu for what he has dubbed Farm Fresh Fridays.
On Aug. 5, for example, Johnson’s menu consisted of garlic roasted chicken, summer squash, steamed Swiss chard, boiled new potatoes, mixed wild mushrooms and triple berry crumble for $5.95. The hospital cafe’s menu prominently mentioned the 10 local producers he sourced his ingredients from.
“He’s made the hospital a destination for food,” said Lucy Norris, project manager for the Mount Vernon-based Sound Food Network, which operates the market in Mount Vernon and another in Seattle. “There was one Friday that he had people lined up out the door.”
The Puget Sound Food Network is part of the nonprofit Northwest Agriculture Business Center. The network started in 2009 as an online tool intended to help match small- and medium-sized producers with buyers.
“We found out pretty quickly that farmers and buyers weren’t going to the Web,” Norris said. “They were still making phone calls. They want that connection, so now we help them develop relationships. Instead of looking at existing markets — like farmers markets — we create mechanisms for them to reach more marketing channels. We’ve introduced farmers to buyers from hospitals, senior centers, day care centers — basically any place that has a budget for food or any place that sells food.”
United General has increased its local food purchases 70% since the Skagit Valley market opened last year, Norris said, and is the market’s biggest customer.
“It needs to grow,” Norris said of the market, which is within three blocks of nearly two dozen restaurants. “Prices have gone up for everything, so the buy local trend is here to stay. It has to do with freshness. It’s a relationship with a story that tells the consumer where it came from.”
Norris said the network’s Seattle market — which draws many of the same growers — has attracted two school districts as well as buyers from retail chains such as Whole Foods.
The network, which receives state and private funding and also pursues grants on behalf of producers, has helped growers secure equipment and assisted with brand development and marketing efforts.
“We want to keep our rural communities vibrant,” Norris said, “because that’s good for all of us.”