Food Is Free Tacoma

Feeding hungry people since 2015.

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How it all started

by David Thompson

In the Spring of 2015 I discovered an organization called Food is Free.

I originally found Food Is Free on Facebook and I fell in love with the idea. It was so simple, and so focused: Create front yard gardens and share the harvest with your neighbors. I had been tending a large garden, sharing food, and  and encountered problems with getting the food I grew to the people who need it. I looked for a local chapter for Food is Free but the closest was Burien and they weren’t very active, so I decided to start a chapter myself.

I contacted John VanDeusen Edwards, the founder of Food is Free, and asked him what I needed to do to start a Tacoma chapter. He sent me some information about how to start. Community engagement and civic engagement hit me as being very useful. I put a small table in front of my house and made a paper sign taped to it. I posted pictures whenever I had a harvest. I kept sharing what I had, and posted photos and information on social media.

In the late summer of 2018 I received a message from Allison Morrow, an environmental reporter for King 5 NBC. She wanted to come out to Tacoma Urban Farm and interview me. The garden was a mess and not ready for filming, but I also I had a gut feeling that everything would change if I did it, so after a few weeks and a bit of cleanup, I told her I would do it.

It was October – the end of the growing season – but I still had some peas, a tomato plant and a sunflower still growing. We decided that I would harvest peas and talk about Food is Free. She set the camera on the ground and stepped away, and I just started harvesting peas and explaining why I was working to grow food and give it away, why the concept appealed to me.

That afternoon at 4 pm the news cycle started, and the video played on every newscast on King 5 and Kong 6/16 for the next 24 hours.

KING5 created a Facebook video based on the report, and published it on Heart Threads. That video went viral and now has over 23 million views and over 300k shares. The next day a reporter from Q13, the Seattle Fox affiliate, came to do an interview with us. Suddenly our Facebook page and group exploded, and we were getting hundreds of followers.

The Food Is Free Tacoma video posted on HeartThreads has accumulated over 23 million views and has been shared over 300,000 times.

The Food Is Free Tacoma Facebook page has over 14,500 followers.

How to Share With Just Friends

How to share with just friends.

I spent the rest of the winter that year

deciding what I wanted Food is Free Tacoma to be…

…and how I was going to get there.

My main goal was to find ways to facilitate the distribution of fresh produce all over the city of Tacoma and whatever surrounding areas we could. We started operating officially under the name Food Is Free Tacoma, and we were off and growing!

I didn’t personally have the resources to support the growth of Food Is Free Tacoma, so we we had to start finding volunteers and funding. We needed to get the word out and build local community support. We knew people were going to support Food Is Free once they learned about it – the viral video proved that. That’s a very different thing than doing the hard work to introduce ourselves to an entire city and earn their trust. We rely on our local network of volunteers and donors to make sure we can get the work done.

Meanwhile, we were working on finding additional food to distribute beyond what we were able to produce in our streetside gardens.

We applied and were accepted into the Pierce County Conservation District Farm Foundations Training and Incubator, and joined the Pierce County Gleaning Project as well. This gave us lots of fruits and vegetables for the table, so I kept sharing.

Gleaning is the act of collecting leftover crops from farmers’ fields after they have been commercially harvested, or on fields where it is not economically profitable to harvest.

I rented a booth at the South Sound Sustainability Expo at the Tacoma Convention Center. It was the first time Food is Free Tacoma was represented at a place other than Tacoma Urban Farm.

My next idea was to build gardens and sharing tables around town. I applied for the Small Sustainable grant from the City of Tacoma. I was approved for the grant that year, but I never got it. We built our first garden in Hilltop during a driving March rainstorm. Food is Free had it’s first satellite location. We built 10 gardens that season with salvaged wood and a very generous donation. The next season COVID hit. I was approved for the Small Sustainable grant again and this season I had insurance and a fiscal sponsor, Cornerstone 253. The grant was to build 20 sites but because of the pandemic I had to build them myself without volunteers. I finished by June so when food rescue arrived, we were ready. Ursula had come on full time and we took the bull by the horns. We started with a truckload of onions and potatoes. 20,000 lbs. We started getting potatoes and onions every week on Tuesdays. We were doing giveaways in front of the Farm with 100s of cars coming to these events. In September we were offered USDA Farm to Family food boxes from City Serve, a California company.

We started out giving away 1050 food boxes twice a week at the farm. This drew in 1000s of cars a week in the neighborhood.

We started working on food rescue with Emergency Food Network in December of 2020.

From January to May of 2021, we distributed 750 Farm to Family food boxes from Cascade Produce every week. By the time we finished in May we had given away an average of 50 tons of food each week – over 1000 tons in under six months.

In May of 2021, we received our official 501(c)(3) non-profit status for Food Is Free Washington. This makes it possible to receive and process grants and incoming financial support.

Food Is Free Tacoma gleaned and distributed 5 tons of fruit during the summer of 2021 – enough to feed 1825 people for a day.

In late 2021, we received a Community Challenge Grant from AARP – this allowed us to build 40 more streetside gardens.

“I am thrilled that Food is Free is being recognized with this well-deserved AARP grant,” said Tacoma Councilwoman Lillian Hunter. “David Thompson is an outstanding, service-focused, and passionate resident that embodies the values of Tacoma and his organization helps feed residents of all ages across the community. Kudos to David and his team for fostering this project and helping Tacoma be an age-friendly city.”

In late 2021, the Tacoma North Rotary Club awarded us a grant to build the ten bed Triple Earl Garden in South Tacoma. Construction on this garden will start in early 2022.

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Please note: Donations are processed for Food Is Free Tacoma by Food Is Free Washington, a 501(c)(3) certified non-profit organization.