With demand already doubling and expected to increase further as the COVID crisis deepens, local food banks – and their customers – are feeling the strain. Now more than ever they need help from the community to support their mission to serve our neighbors in need.
The Edmonds Food Bank operates out of the Edmonds United Methodist Church. It is open for food distribution on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, and Monday evenings.
“On a typical Monday we serve maybe 80-100 families,” said Edmonds Food Bank Director Casey Davis. “Last week this was up to 165, and this week we hit 195 — and these are families, not individuals. And with the deepening unemployment situation, I’m afraid we’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg. I fear that with the recent layoffs at Boeing we’ll see another big jump in demand.”
And it’s not just more customers.
Food banks are being squeezed in two directions, because it’s also becoming increasingly difficult to keep stocked with everything from canned goods to meats to pasta.
An important supply stream to food banks comes from local grocery stores that donate unsold stock and items approaching their pull date. But with many shoppers laying in supplies at home in response to COVID, there are simply fewer of these items.
“If you don’t see it on the store shelves, we don’t have it either,” explained Davis. “And in the interest of safety and keeping down the spread of COVID-19, we’re also playing it safe and no longer accepting individual food donations at Edmonds.”
A major source of food for all three is Food Lifeline, one of three organizations (the other two are Volunteers of America and Northwest Harvest) that secure and distribute food to food banks. Formerly local food banks received supplies from all three, but in order to ensure a more even distribution of food items and better use of resources, the three recently agreed to divide up their service territories, with each concentrating on a specific region. As a result, Food Lifeline is now the sole distributor to South Snohomish County food banks.
“There’s no doubt that this a better, more equitable way to do it,” says Davis. “But with only one supplier, it means that we are getting less here in Edmonds than before the change, and this means we need more donations and to purchase more.
As if this weren’t creating enough of a challenge, food banks are finding themselves increasingly short-staffed as many volunteers are choosing to stay home.
“Our regular volunteers are predominantly seniors,” explained Alissa Jones, Lynnwood Food Bank director. “Right now between 90 and 95 percent of our regular volunteers are staying home due to age and health.”
In response, Jones put out a call for help.
“The community has been great in responding to this,” she added. “Many folks who are normally busy are finding they have extra time with the COVID situation. Teachers, college students, even youth pastors have offered to help. I’m especially grateful to Lynnwood City Councilmembers Shannon Sessions and Julieta Altamirano-Crosby who, along with their families, have become regular volunteers. If you have time and want to help, we need you.”
This pattern is reflected at the Concern for Neighbors Food Bank in Mountlake Terrace.
“The volunteers 60 and older have dropped away since the COVID crisis hit, and our core volunteers are suddenly a bit younger,” explains director Mike Begeman. “These new volunteers are really stepping to the plate. We make an extra effort to work with our volunteers, hold regular meetings, solicit their feedback, and are taking extra efforts during this crisis to work as a team in following all distancing and sanitation guidelines religiously. As a result, everyone feels they have a stake in what we’re doing, they feel ownership and they feel safe.”
In keeping with social distancing guidelines, all three food banks have instituted systems whereby customers remain in cars and volunteers bring groceries to them.
At Concern for Neighbors, customers begin lining up in their cars on the regular Tuesday distribution day when volunteers bring out a standard selection of pre-bagged groceries. Customers remain in the cars, while volunteers put the bags in the trunk. If the trunk can’t be popped from inside the vehicle, the volunteer sets the bags next to the car and the customer gets out to do the loading.
Lynnwood runs a similar system, where customers line up ferry-line style. Volunteers communicate through the closed car windows to ask what the customer needs, and relay the shopping list by walkie-talkie to volunteers inside the food bank who collect the groceries, which are then brought out to the cars and placed in the trunk.
Especially innovative is the Edmonds Food Bank, which has instituted an online ordering system.
“It’s really important to me to give our customers choice and give them what they need,” explained Davis. “Every week we have different items depending on what is available. On Friday morning I look at what we have and enter them into our online ordering system. Customers can fill out their online order Friday night through Tuesday, and the system gives them a pickup time. Most customers come in cars, and queue up like a ferry line. Customers who don’t have a car can walk up, and those without internet access can fill out an order form in person on distribution day.”
Davis stresses that while preserving customer choice is important, the most critical concern right now is keeping customers and volunteers safe by strictly following all social distancing and sanitation guides to the letter.
While all three local food banks are rising to the challenges of fulfilling their mission in these difficult times, the extra strain on their resources mean that more than ever they need help from the communities they serve. Unlike Edmonds, Lynnwood and Concern for Neighbors are still accepting individual food donations — but the big need right now is cash.
“Many items we simply need to purchase — they don’t come to us in any other way,” Davis continued. “These include meat and dairy items, but also things like rice. Normally we’d buy a pallet of rice from Costco, but now Costco limits all customers — including food banks — to five containers of rice. And where normally many suppliers give us a price break, with the stress in the supply chain we’re now increasingly having to pay retail.”
At Concern for Neighbors, Begeman reports that the community is showing its support, but with an expected increase in demand of up to 50% in the coming weeks, the food bank need more.
“Mountlake Terrace and Brier have really stepped up with donations,” he says. “Right now we really need hygiene items, pet food (especially cat food), produce and dairy. We’re putting up our top 10 want list on the website, so people able to help can check there to see our current greatest needs.”
“Money is the perfect donation for us right now,” says Lynnwood’s Alissa Jones. “We’re having to spend more, especially on meat, eggs and dairy, and that takes cash.”
Jones has nothing but praise for the Lynnwood community and how they’re pitching in to help, but worries about dwindling stocks and increased demand.
“Lynnwood has been very supportive,” she says. “It’s a strong community, and a great place where people help each other. I feel lucky to be here. No matter what COVID throws our way, Lynnwood will rise to it.”