Only about one-fourth of the food consumed in western Washington is grown there, according to statistics from the University of Washington, Seattle. The Puget Sound Food Network is working to change that one grower-buyer relationship at a time.

Founded in 2009 by the Northwest Agriculture Business Center, Mount Vernon, Wash., the Puget Sound Food Network has more than 200 members and is reporting success in helping growers cut out the middleman and sell directly to customers closest to them.

Lucy Norris, director of marketing for the Northwest Agriculture Business Center, is the project manager for the food network, which received a $300,000 working capital grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Value-Added Producer program earlier this year.

Norris said the network takes a diverse approach to meet its mission of connecting local food producers with local food buyers, including retailers, institutional foodservice operators and restaurants. In July the network sponsored a business-to-business local food showcase to bring commercial buyers together with regional growers.

The one-day event matched Susan Soltes, owner of Bow Hill Blueberries, Bow, Wash., with two major medical centers in the region that are now serving fresh blueberries from her Skagit Valley farm. About 20 other growers also participated.

Karen Shelton, meal coordinator for the more than 500 children at the White Center Educare Early Learning Center, said the network event was the first time she had the opportunity to work directly with that many local growers.

“We are always looking for ways to provide the best food for our children,” Shelton said. “This is definitely making it much easier for us.”

About 80% of Washington’s population lives in the Puget Sound region, according to the network website, providing a large consumer base for growers interested in selling close to home.

Dale Hayton, sales manager for Valley Pride Sales, the marketing arm of Country Cousins Inc., Mount Vernon, said he is seeing an increase in local buying.

“We can provide fresher products for less freight costs,” Hayton said. “Retailers are our target, and they have really gotten behind it.”

In addition to the opportunity to participate in events such as the business-to-business showcase, membership in the network provides growers access to dedicated account managers who have knowledge and experience with their specific commodities.

The account managers help break down the logistics barriers between growers and potential customers, Norris said. They also provide help with branding and marketing strategies.

There are four Skagit Valley representatives on the Puget Sound Food Network advisory board:

  • Steve Sakuma, Sakuma Bros. Farms;
  • Dennis Jones, Skagit Farmer Supply;
  • Liz McNett Crowl, Institutional Food Advocate, and
  • Sandy Strobl, Knutzen Bros.

Staff writer Kayla Banzet contributed to this story.