Image: Robin Stein
Rainier Valley Food Bank

No one wants to have to rely on the kindness of strangers. 

But for several months earlier this year, that’s exactly what I did, living through a brief rough patch on un-employment, help from family—and, crucially, my local food bank.

If you’ve never set foot inside your own local food bank, let me give you a sense of what the experience is like at the one in Rainier Valley. Set in a small chartreuse structure on Rainier Avenue South, it’s divided into two parts—a large open space for food prep and a smaller room that hosts the food bank itself. This tiny building, perhaps 300 square feet, fulfilled close to 37,000 individual requests for food last year.

The sign says to show up at 9:30 on Saturday morning, but that would be a rookie mistake (one of many I made when I first started going to the food bank, which was, at first, a disorienting and utterly weird experience). What you really have to do, if you want to get in, is show up well before 8 and wait in line, where you’ll be joined by 40 or 50 other food bank clients, many of them elderly and most of them chatting amiably in a cacophony of languages. This first line isn’t really the line line; it’s the line to get your ticket from the lady who works the door. (I think of her as the bouncer.) 

Seating in the outdoor waiting area, which consists of a concrete space bisected by two benches and crowded with plastic and cardboard crates, is limited, but people are usually willing to squeeze, and by the time volunteers arrive with tickets, jostling for space is fierce. Just because someone is old enough to be your grandmother doesn’t mean she won’t shove you out of place the second you give an inch. 

Once the tickets arrive, everyone shuffles in the line to get their number. After that, it’s all waiting and no action till the doors open at 9:30. This is a good time to head home for a while; or, if you’re in a neighborhood with a nearby coffee shop (if you’re on Rainier, may I suggest the Starbucks at the Safeway across the street?), bring a book and hunker down there for a couple hours. When you return, get back in line. Wait politely for your number to be called and, whatever you do, do not mess with the bouncer. 

Eventually it’ll be your turn. 

This, I should say, is where food banks vary dramatically. When you walk in the door at the Rainier Valley Food Bank, for example, you hand your food bank ID card to a greeter, who gives you another card indicating how many people you live with. This determines how much you can get at each station (food banks, in Seattle at least, are arranged into stations, where you’re handed your allotted number of items—two cans of spaghetti sauce, say, or one loaf of bread, or three cucumbers). How strict the volunteers are with the food supply depends largely on how much is available—“just one chicken today” is a common refrain, but so is “please take some more mushrooms.” And you never know. One week, they may have to strictly ration an item like yogurt; the next week, they’re practically begging you to take canned wild salmon or baby watermelons or jars of miso off their hands.

In addition to the inevitable canned goods with brand names you’ve never heard of, dry items, refrigerator staples like yogurt and eggs, produce, and bread, there are always miscellaneous piles of this-and-that that clearly resulted from a pantry cleaning. There’s also what I think of as the Whole Foods refrigerator shelf of death—where the grocery chain sends expired salsas, salads, and soups to die.

At the other end of the scale is the Ballard Food Bank, which functions exactly like a grocery store, minus the cash registers. Instead of walking from station to station with a bag you brought yourself, attendants hand you a cart that you push around the spacious building, which was built in 2010. Milk and eggs are a given, as are yogurt, cheese, and your choice of meat. (In my months of patronizing my local food bank, I received meat—admittedly Aidells turkey sausage, retail price $5.99—exactly once.) Oh, there’s also a flower station. A flower station! Once you’re done, a volunteer bags your items and carries them out to your car. The only real difference between this food bank and a grocery store is that no money changes hands.

I don’t want to begrudge Ballard its flowers. Instead, I see them as a result of our geographically based patchwork of public and private agencies and distributors funded partly by city, state, and federal governments and partly by individual and corporate contributions. 

And the need is growing: Food Lifeline, a hunger relief organization for low-income families in Western Washington, reports that average monthly visits to food banks in Seattle more than doubled between 2007 and 2011, to 123,000 a month. Food Lifeline president and CEO Linda Nageotte says the total number of clients has plateaued even as the frequency of clients’ visits has increased, reflecting greater need among people who patronize food banks. Depending on size and resources, food banks open to the general public between one and four days a week, and some restrict visits to one per week.

Those who live in wealthier neighborhoods—that is, places where the general population is less likely to need a food bank—have access to better, and more, free food.

Currently, one in five kids in King County are “food insecure,” meaning their families have to cut back on food or food quality in order to pay other bills, and 35 percent of those served by Food Lifeline are children. 

Some stats about food bank clients may surprise you. According to the latest survey of food bank recipients in Western Washington, more than three-quarters of food bank clients had at least a high school degree and over 9 percent had completed college or higher. Forty-one percent of all client households included at least one adult with a job, and 20 percent of those jobs were managerial. Most food bank clients, in other words, aren’t homeless; food banks are a supplement that gives them the ability to pay for rent, electricity, medicine, and other bills.

The big food-distribution nonprofits, including Solid Ground, Food Lifeline, and Northwest Harvest, do yeoman’s work collecting donations, buying food, and distributing to food banks. Northwest Harvest distributes food to about 350 food banks and meal programs across the state, with the specific goal of ensuring their food is nutritious; Food Lifeline focuses on Western Washington, where it provides food to more than 300 food banks. Nageotte cautions that the big food distributors’ resources are increasingly strained. “The need has gotten so much bigger, there is less food to go around per client.” To take one example, support from the Emergency Food and Shelter Program managed by the Department of Homeland Security, which funds food banks in King County, dropped 50 percent last year, she says. 

But those numbers come with an asterisk: The number of people one food bank can feed depends largely on the goodwill of its community. Trish Twomey, director of the Hunger Action Center at Solid Ground, says the quality and quantity of what’s available at a particular food bank is “mostly based on resources—the North End food banks tend to have more resources than perhaps the south and central part of the city.” By “resources,” Twomey means grocery stores, affluent community members, and churches and other organizations that contribute time, food, and money. Near the University Food Bank, which Twomey used to run, for example, there are “probably seven congregations,” plus two grocery stores and a pool of 40,000 students from which to draw volunteers.

The perverse consequence is that those who live in richer neighborhoods—that is, and I’m generalizing here, places where the general population is less likely to need a food bank—have access to better, and more, free food. 

I dipped my toe into the food bank system, but I never had to wade all the way in. I never expected to stay there. Many people don’t have that privilege. To help them, Twomey suggests making monetary contributions to your local food bank or to Northwest Harvest or Food Lifeline, which can buy food in bulk, meaning their money goes further.

In late October, Seattle mayor Mike McGinn announced a new Seattle Food Plan. Billed as a comprehensive approach to the city’s “food system,” it proposes increasing access to healthy foods in food-insecure areas, encouraging people to farm and compost, and, most relevant for those who use them, providing more operational support to food banks. The city council is also considering a proposal to add $200,000 to the city budget to help buy bulk food for food banks. There’s a lot to chuckle at in the plan—the benefit of “easy bicycle access to food banks” is pretty laughable to anyone who’s lugged a 50-pound bag of groceries onto the bus—but it’s good to know the city is paying attention.

 

Help the Hungry
To donate to your local food bank or volunteer, contact one of the city’s food distribution sources.

City of Seattle Emergency Services
seattle.gov/humanservices/emergencyservices/emergencyfood.htm 

Food Lifeline 
1702 NE 150th St, Shoreline, 206-545-3663; foodlifeline.org 

Northwest Harvest
711 Cherry St, First Hill, 206-625-0755; northwestharvest.org

Solid Ground’s Hunger Action Center
1501 N 45th St, Wallingford, 206-694-6756; solid-ground.org/programs/nutrition/pages/default.aspx