ENTERPRISE, Ore. — Last spring the world was shaken by a global pandemic that either sent people home to work or left them unemployed. The shutdown shuttered restaurants and left local producers with nowhere to distribute their food.
Here in the far northeastern corner of Oregon, a unique online marketplace was expanded to allow those producers to sell their crops and products and have them delivered to customers’ doorsteps.
About a year ago, Kristy Athens started an online gift shop called Genuine Wallowa County featuring locally made products. Her five-year plan was to add locally grown food to the online store’s offerings, but the pandemic put that plan on a fast track.
“A couple local producers asked if I would sell food on my website,” Athens said. “They were interested in not having to do their own laborious deliveries.”
Mary Hawkins of Hawkins Sisters Ranch, Theresa Stangel of Stangel Bison Ranch and Beth Gibans of Backyard Gardens started meeting with Athens in January. COVID-19 pushed the idea to the front burner in a hurry.
“It became clear that it was a really good time to offer food delivery to people’s houses so they don’t have to endanger themselves by going to a grocery store,” Athens said. “Meanwhile, restaurants were closed and local producers had nowhere to sell their food. If there is ever a time to be resilient as a county, it’s during a pandemic.”
In 2015 Athens, a writer drawn to the food justice movement, graduated with a master’s degree in food systems from Marylhurst University in Portland.
“I work in economic development and was looking for ways to put those things together,” Athens said. “What I really wanted to do and hopefully still will is create a larger scale incubator farm. Wallowa County has a very strong brand as far as tourism and I think we could use that brand as far as local food production is concerned.”
As the outreach specialist for Northeast Oregon Economic Development District, Athens came across a 2006 economic study. One of the recommendations was to create a Wallowa County brand.
The online gift shop cultivated Wallowa County brand recognition, and GWC Provisions brought food delivery into the mix.
The results from a poll on a community Facebook page were overwhelming. She realized she had a market.
Athens said she started with pre-sale memberships and fundraising for supplies. She received small grants from the Eastern Oregon Workforce Board and Slow Foods Wallowa as well as investments from community members to buy a refrigerator and freezer, design a website and cover other startup costs.
GWC Provisions meat and produce are either delivered to customers’ doors or dropped off in insulated bags at Main Street Motors in Enterprise, a central location for most people in the county.
Athens sells items like chicken, bison, goat, vegetables and fruit, Jor energy bars and Sei Mee Tea and Joseph Creek Coffee. She’s even started selling some of the bounty from her garden — items that don’t compete with her vendors.
Vendors receive 80% of the retail price, and $1 of every sale goes to one of the county’s two food banks. Eventually, Athens said she would like to be able to accept the Oregon Trail card.
Athens says her new online venture put into practice her entrepreneurship and work on food justice.
“I feel like after having talked about food justice for two straight years in grad school it feels good to do something on the ground that has results and is affecting people,” Athens said.