The people queued up down the block to step into Rainier Valley Food Bank. “If you envision the lines up for Wisconsin voting, it was like that,” said executive director Gloria Hatcher-Mays. This was already the second phase of response to the Covid-19 pandemic. In January, when the first case was announced in a Snohomish County man, RVFB cleaned rigorously and had everyone start washing their hands at camping sinks upon entering.
As the pandemic escalated, Gloria said she and her staff realized it was impossible to social distance inside the space. It’s both the smallest and the busiest food bank in the city. They tried limiting the amount of people in the food bank at once. But those lines were too long and because of language barriers—many who use RVFB speak Russian or Asian or African languages—staff had trouble communicating about new distancing protocols. “It was a recipe for disaster,” she says. “We were definitely going to have people get sick if we didn't do something. And we knew that the need was great. So it's not like we could close.”
Next they tried curbside pickup. Food bank shoppers would call in an order and swing by. But staff couldn’t get the logistics to work. The language barrier was still a problem. So about a month ago RVFB transformed once again. It now delivers around 1,200 bags of food each week (as well as continuing an altered school lunch program). That’s approaching the limit of what RVFB's space and infrastructure can handle, Gloria says. And the shifts in the food system have the food bank buying more produce and proteins than it usually would—something that’s unsustainable in the long term, which she hopes to shore up with fundraising (you can donate here).
But the need, especially for delivery, is only growing, Gloria said, and she’s particularly concerned about people of color who need a delivery option, since Covid-19 is afflicting Black and Latinx Americans at higher rates, early data shows. RVFB is getting requests for delivery as far away as Auburn and Shoreline. So far there isn’t a hub for organizing deliveries in the greater Seattle area. “You might hear a little frustration,” she told me. “We don’t want to get to a point where we can’t get this for everybody who needs it.”
After serving as executive director of the Pike Market Senior Center, she came to RVFB about a year ago. The community, she says, has made the swift shift to delivery possible. Amazon and King County Metro’s Access Transportation have both assisted with deliveries, offering vehicles and drivers.
Unlike some food banks which have seen volunteering drop off, RVFB has had enough help (though it always welcomes more support). A few senior volunteers decided to opt out, but others have filled their places—packing and delivering bags, donating food. An air traffic controller even offered to help. “He’s been a godsend for us,” she says, working out the logistics of those 1,200 bags getting delivered. He found software that creates routes for the volunteer drivers and lets them communicate. She calls the speed with which RVFB set up its response “a miracle. Frankly I can’t even believe it myself.” That community support has been vital to her personally as well.
When I asked how she’d been coping with her work and the mounting crisis, she paused for a moment. “I was not expecting that question.” Her husband contracted Covid-19 and was in intensive care. She isolated herself for a couple of weeks, but was now back at the food bank. It’s been painful, she said, but not unmanageable, because of her staff. Their support has allowed her to step away and care for her family and herself as needed. “The one thing that they all say… [is] there is no way we’re closing. We’ll do anything but we’re not closing.”