The South King County Food Coalition (SKCFC) serves a remarkably large area that encompasses diversity in land, people, resources, and more. The unique relationships between the food banks and local resources means that volunteer relations is both a challenging and rewarding element to the project. The reason it is important to acknowledge and embrace all of these differences in populations and environments of each part of the region is because they can be both challenging and rewarding depending on the approach taken by the VISTA. From day one, this VISTA chose to do her research and create documents and resources using demographic information, maps, and other public information such as reports on hunger and nutrition to compile “report cards” about the twelve sections of South King County that could be used to make informed decisions about the needs of each one.
This type of information can be useful in a variety of ways but it particularly important for volunteer engagement as each community can offer different skills and resources to the project, but only if properly engaged. For example, Elk Run Farm is located in Maple Valley, WA which is a small semi-rural/semi-suburban commuter city just outside of Seattle in east King County. The location poses serious limitations as it is intended to serve the whole region but is really only accessible to local residents or those with easy access to transportation. While the surrounding region is ideal for recruiting volunteers for on-site activities and engagement, the location limits the opportunities for people living elsewhere in King County, many of whom are ready and eager to help with the project. The VISTA has been working with community partners and local volunteer leaders to develop ways to tap into the regional population by creating programming and volunteer opportunities that can occur in each of the twelve food banks of SKCFC including nutrition education for food bank clients that is customized to the production at Elk Run.
While these programs and partnerships are creating great networks within the community, Elk Run functions mainly off of volunteer labor so the majority of attention with volunteer relations needs to be focused on the site and the surrounding area. Maple Valley differs greatly from the rest of the county in terms of population, climate, politics, and much more which impacts the decisions that are made regarding community engagement. The first step towards developing a strong volunteer base has been to interact with the community in a variety of ways and get the word out about the project in general. This involved sending emails, attending meetings, and passing out fliers to local business, churches, and civic organizations such as Boy Scouts of America, Girl Scouts, and more. Elk Run staff also attended networking events, Chamber of Commerce meetings, and information sessions about local events to increase awareness and presence in the community. While this approach is labor intensive, the long term benefits have proven worthwhile recruiting interested volunteers.
Long term retention of volunteers has proven difficult for the Elk Run Farm project but the VISTA has approached this issue with a flexible mindset due to the relative newness and uniqueness of the project. As the physical site of the farm becomes more developed and relationships in the community, especially with families and youth groups, are strengthened, volunteers have been returning more and more.