Gallup poll: Olympia leads nation in access to affordable produce

ahobbs@theolympian.comApril 10, 2014 

Olympia residents have easier access to affordable fruits and vegetables than any other city in the nation, according to a Gallup poll.

Released this week, the poll reports that 96.6 percent of Olympia residents find it easy to get fresh produce. Another Washington city, Yakima, ranks fourth at 96 percent.

Olympia finished ahead of Lancaster, Pa. (96.5 percent), and Holland-Grand Haven, Mich. (96.3 percent).

The national average is 90.9 percent, according to the poll, which was conducted in 2012-2013 in 189 metropolitan areas. At least 300 adults were interviewed by phone in each area, and samples were weighted to match each area’s demographics, according to Gallup. Ranking dead last was Anchorage, Alaska, where 67.3 percent of respondents reported easy access to fruits and vegetables. The low percentage was attributed to Alaska’s colder climate and remote location.

Olympia is home to an active local food movement with several pieces in place.

“This ground is so fertile, anything grows,” said Rene Willis, who runs the Capitol Vision Community Garden in Olympia with her husband, David.

Located on Yew Street next to the Capitol Vision Christian Church, the garden measures 50,000 square feet and is considered one of the area’s most productive. Local residents rent about 40 plots, while the rest of land goes toward growing free food for the community. Willis said the garden was created with neighborhood participation in mind.

“We really want to bring people in and build community. So far, it’s worked,” said Willis, admiring newly planted rows of beans, beets, leeks and flowers. “I’m hoping someday they’ll all participate.”

Olympia’s rank in the Gallup poll came as no surprise to Roberta Golden, who worked the soil with a hoe Wednesday morning at the Olympia Community Garden.

Located at Central Street and 13th Avenue Southeast, the garden is managed by Sustainable South Sound, a volunteer organization that promotes sustainability and local food production.

As one of about a dozen community members with a plot in the garden, Golden plans to grow chives, sage, zucchini and more this season. The best part about gardening, she said, is eating fresh produce all summer and fall.

Other plots in the garden include raspberries, squash and kale. Golden points to an apple tree in the corner of the property that produces “the most delicious apples I’ve ever had,” then later jokes that anyone who resorts to buying zucchini in the grocery store “doesn’t have any friends in Olympia.”

Golden said that at one time she served food samples at a local grocery store. She was initially surprised by all the customers who constantly told her about banned and harmful ingredients in the food — and said this depth of food knowledge is common in the Olympia area.

“We have an educated community here,” she said. “People know what’s in their food.”

One influential factor in the local food movement is The Evergreen State College, which runs programs in environmental studies and sustainable food systems. The Olympia Food Co-op, which started 30 years ago as an organic alternative to chain grocery stores, now has about 12,000 active members. Another popular hub for local produce is the Olympia Farmers Market, which is the state’s second largest market.

Another contributor to the movement is the Garden-Raised Bounty program, known as GRuB, which has built 2,300 backyard and community gardens in the area since 1993. GRuB hosts workshops and provides resources for new gardeners. At a recent Olympia City Council meeting, director Katie Rains said GRuB plans to build 15 local organic gardens in 2014. GRuB also produces 9,000 pounds of food a year at its 2-acre farm in west Olympia.

URBAN AGRICULTURE

At the government level, Olympia is considering a stronger embrace of urban agriculture — and will possibly encourage more small-scale farming and more community gardens.

Members of the city’s planning commission made recommendations for agriculture-related policies during a study session Tuesday with the Olympia City Council.

“Cities can definitely be part of the solution,” planning commissioner Carole Richmond told the council. “There’s a very strong local food movement.”

New urban agriculture policies are among the proposed revisions under review for the city’s comprehensive plan. The plan outlines the city’s goals and vision for the next 20 years, and the council is slated to adopt the revised plan by June.

The idea is to strengthen Olympia’s role as a collaborative partner in the region’s food system, said Amy Buckler, associate planner for the city.

Recommendations include making sure everyone in Olympia is within biking or walking distance of a place to grow food, encouraging for-profit gardening and farming, allowing rooftop food production and greenhouses, and educating the community on the benefits of local food systems.

For guidance on agriculture policies, the planning commission is looking at organizations such as Sustainable South Sound, Thurston Food System Council and the Puget Sound Regional Food Policy Council.

Andy Hobbs: 360-704-6869 ahobbs@theolympian.com

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