Don’t bet against them
According to the City of Bellingham, more than 740 people experience homelessness in Whatcom County every night. Tragically, 18% of the county’s homeless population are families with children. More than half — 60% — of the homeless population is considered “unseen.” The primary reasons for homelessness in the county include the loss of a home, the loss of a job, and substance abuse and/or mental health challenges.
It isn’t just individuals experiencing homelessness who face challenges. Both those without a home and the working poor also struggle with food insecurity. Last year, Whatcom County Unified Command asked the Whatcom Community Foundation to put together the COVID-19 Food Security Task Force (FSTF), which includes more than 25 county organizations. The data they uncovered is startling. Prior to the pandemic, around 15% of the county’s population experienced food insecurity. That number skyrocketed with the onset of COVID-19. In May of 2020, food banks, Meals on Wheels, schools, and other community organizations distributed about 800,000 meals in Whatcom County.
Both homelessness and food insecurity are issues near and dear to the hearts of Andy and Erin Vitaljic, two of Whatcom County’s most dynamic (and big-hearted) entrepreneurs. Andy is known throughout the county as the founder of American Canadian Fisheries. Andy is a Bellingham native, having grown up in the fishing industry. The business is in his blood. His father, Joe Vitaljic, died while gill-netting when his boat capsized near Smith Island. That tragic accident was enough to force Andy off of a boat for good. However, while an unfortunate circumstance took Andy off the water, nothing could take him away from the industry. Once on land, he founded the Fisherman’s Market in downtown Bellingham. Today his sprawling business interests include American Canadian Fisheries, Q Sea Specialty Services, Hannegan Properties, Hannegan Seafoods, Hannegan Seafood Galley, Hannegan Express, and Shore Pine Investments with American Canadian Fisheries and its operations within Washington, Oregon, California and Michigan being the primary focus.
While Andy Vitaljic is one of the county’s most successful entrepreneurs, his commitment to the community is an even greater passion than the bottom-line success of his many businesses. The Vitaljics’ 40-acre business park on the corner of Hannegan and Hemmi (known as Hannegan Properties) is home to CTK Farms, an agricultural space that Christ the King Church uses to grow produce for support of local food banks.
“I am deeply proud of the way we’ve supported Christ the King,” said Vitaljic. “As an organization, they do so much good in this community, and we show our appreciation for the work they do by providing free-of-charge the utilities and agricultural acreage used by CTK Farms. Our support of the church is an important part of what we want to leave behind through our work. We are just as committed to our legacy as we are to our balance sheet, and I believe a big part of our success can be attributed to a company-wide commitment to doing well and doing good.”
Collectively, American Canadian Fisheries, CTK Farms and the Vitaljics have provided financial support and millions of pounds of meals to food banks within Whatcom County and subsequently, through other partnerships, to the states of Washington, Oregon, and California — and that generosity and business success is a family operation. Erin Vitaljic, Andy’s wife, owns and operates Fat-Cat Fish, a related-party entity that turns by-products of fish processing into high-quality pet food. Eleven years ago, Business Pulse named Fat-Cat Fish the “Startup of the Year”. That success has continued over the last decade. Today the company’s range of wild caught salmon-based pet foods and treats meet or exceed the highest quality standards. But for the Vitaljics, business success always come second to a deep passion for feeding their community.
“Erin and I were both raised to be generous,” said Andy Vitaljic. “We both grew up here. This community has given both of us and our employees so much. Prosperity goes hand-in-hand with responsibility. We both firmly believe that. For Erin and me, that responsibility means we need to do everything we can to feed the homeless and anyone in Whatcom County who goes to bed hungry at night.”
At this stage of their careers, Andy and Erin Vitaljic are increasingly focused on their legacy. While no one would question their commitment to Whatcom County, they would like to do more. Part of those plans include expanding their ability to feed even more needy families through additional cold storage on their 40-acre parcel known as Hannegan Properties.
“It is extremely difficult for local government and community-based organizations to tackle hunger in Whatcom County,” said Andy Vitaljic. “They do an incredible job, and we support what they do. But we have millions of pounds of high-quality wild salmon fillets and other products that would put food in the bellies of people who really need it. Erin and I have been blessed in our lives. We don’t go to bed hungry — but a lot of good people do. We can expand our ability to change that with more cold storage.”
More than a decade ago, Andy Vitaljic attempted to achieve his vision, but the county rejected his attempt at cold storage expansion. He and Erin both hope this time things will be different.
“We are preparing to discuss an expansion of our cold storage facilities with the county executive and other local policymakers,” Andy Vitaljic said. “I believe that homelessness and food insecurity have become such an issue in Whatcom County that the private sector must take a leadership role in helping address these issues. We’ve been doing that in one way or another since the day we founded this company. This expansion of our facility would increase that capacity. We believe it is a rare opportunity to get a win for the county, a win for the company, and a win for a lot of families and struggling individuals who just need a nutritious meal in their bellies.”
Homelessness and food insecurity can become a highly politicized issue — but politics should never impede helping people.
“The cold storage facility, specifically the activities of freezing and storing, would allow us and our companies to directly support NW Harvest and CTK Church’s efforts to keep food banks stocked during a difficult time,” Andy added.
“The private sector is an important part of addressing the issues that prevent our county and the people who live here from reaching their full potential,” said Barbara Chase, executive director of the Whatcom Business Alliance. “It is projects like this and people like Erin and Andy who can use their resources and their servant hearts to help our policymakers address the issues they care about. While people have different opinions about ways to improve our community, no one wants to see a child or adult go hungry.”
The road ahead for Andy and Erin Vitaljic and the rest of their team is a little unknown. The permitting process for new cold storage facilities is complex and will take time. However, regardless of the outcome, the Vitaljics are sure of one thing.
“Our commitment to feeding the hungry will never wane,” said Andy. “This really is our legacy, and I hope that long after I leave this world for the next, people won’t remember Andy the fisherman, or even Andy the entrepreneur. They will remember our commitment to feeding the hungry—and the people who lead our companies into the next generation will maintain that commitment.”
While the future of the Vitaljics’ expanded facility is still up in the air, one thing is certain: Andy and Erin have made a massive commitment to feeding the hungry in Whatcom County, and this community is better because of their generous hearts and entrepreneurial passion. ■