Local food banks face growing need, changing operations amid coronavirus impact
By Hannah Sheil
As the economic effects of coronavirus deepen, Seattle food banks are tasked with handling the growing need for food in their communities while also managing safe distribution practices and significant operational changes.
With many communities experiencing food insecurity and others at risk of coronavirus due to pre-existing health issues, people are picking up food for themselves and a growing number of friends, families, and neighbors. This high demand is creating a growing pressure for resources, said Northwest Harvest Communications Director Jordan Rubin.
“The amount of people coming into food banks in Washington is growing,” Rubin said, “but also the overall need of what people need to take back with them is growing.”
The increased need comes as Washington’s unemployment rate hits 15.4% — more than triple the unemployment rate this time last year— and an estimated 1.6 million Washingtonians are facing food insecurity.
When COVID-19 related job losses began in early March, food banks across Washington state started to see an influx of visitors.
During a standard month, the Ballard Food Bank has about 3,200 visits. But this April, the food bank had nearly 6,100 drive-thru visits and home deliveries, said Colleen Martinson, the Director of Development and Communications.
Similarly, the White Center Food Bank has seen about a 45% daily increase of visitors, some of whom are having to use the service for the first time in years.
“It’s real eye-opening and heartbreaking at the same time,” said Carmen Smith, White Center Food Bank’s Associate Executive Director.
The West Seattle Food Bank — which recently merged with West Seattle Helpline in an effort to consolidate resources — has seen an increase in use across all of their services, from food pick-up to rent and utility assistance.
The economic impacts for food bank users are what worry Cilia Jurdy, West Seattle Food Bank Development and Communications Manager, as she expects the need for all the services to continue to increase.
“We anticipate that when things are a little bit safer, but the economy hasn’t completely recovered yet, that we will see more and more people coming into the food bank,” said Jurdy.
Prior to the pandemic, the White Center Food Bank practiced a grocery store model which offered a more dignified shopping experience, said Smith. But as Smith and other food banks realized, the increase in attendance combined with health and safety concerns, meant their distribution setups had to change.
The food bank found that an outdoor arrangement, similar to a farmers market, was the most efficient and safe way to serve visitors while still allowing people to pick their own food.
“We’ve just had to continue to modify, modify, modify and be flexible to best serve our neighbors,” Smith said.
Ballard Food Bank transitioned their grocery store style to a drive-through model, with visitors staying in their cars as volunteers retrieve their food after asking a few questions relating to family size, food or dietary preferences, and other needs.
Home delivery services have “dramatically expanded” as well, said Martinson. Quickly responding to the need, the food bank leadership had to create a new system allowing food bank users to enroll in the delivery program through an online form.
And for people experiencing homelessness, Ballard Food Bank is still offering “no-cook bags” and groceries through walk-ups.
While each food bank’s approach differs slightly, all three mentioned are receiving pre-packed boxes of food from Food Lifeline to distribute. The boxes are a product of the Washington Food Fund, a relief-fund launched in early April by the Governor’s office in response to “dangerously low levels” of supplies at food banks amid increasing demand.
National Guard members, clad in uniforms and masks, are another new addition to the changing food bank environment. The guardsmen were deployed to assist with food distribution statewide as many food banks began experiencing volunteer shortages due to social distancing.
White Center customers have been receptive to the National Guard presence, said Carmen Smith. Jairo Rincon, a guardsman, speaks English, Spanish, and some French and Tagalog, beneficial skills when serving a diverse population in a community setting, he said.
“People tend to have a negative look on the military so being able to be here, communicate — speak to them as their neighbor — has definitely helped,” said Rincon.
In a letter to the Trump administration on Friday, Gov. Jay Inslee requested an “extension of authority and additional funding” for National Guard employment through July 31, 2020 in support of the state’s COVID-19 emergency response efforts.
Despite initial decreases in food and monetary donations, community members and local businesses have been a symbol of resilience as they provide support, in both traditional and unique ways.
Ballard Food Bank is the beneficiary of new fundraisers from two local teenagers’ T-shirt sales and a local photographer’s “porch portraits” proceeds. Hubert’s lemonade donated nearly 1,000 pounds of its popular drink to White Center Food Bank and a $25,000 monetary donation was given by the Ardagh Group in Seattle.
For patrons like Serena Spaulding, an Arbor Heights resident and mother of a 7-month-old, keeping the White Center Food Bank stocked means access to more than just food. The bank operates a Baby Pantry in partnership with Westside Baby, providing a variety of items for infants and young children.
“If anyone’s wondering where to send their money it’s places like these,” said Spaulding. “The running joke in my household is, like Eminem says, ‘food stamps don’t buy diapers.’”
West Seattle Food Bank’s annual “Instruments of Change” fundraiser transitioned into a virtual event for the first time, but community members still showed up, donating over $95,000.
Some individual donors have even donated their stimulus check money, according to Smith and Jurdy.
Seeing the level of support and generosity from the West Seattle Community — especially in a time of fear and uncertainty — has been heartwarming and a source of hope for the food bank and the community at large, said Jurdy.
“We’re in this together, and we’re gonna get through it together,” said Jurdy. “And we’ve always supported each other and we’ll continue to support each other.”