Best Wishes from Environmental Works for a happy and healthy 2018!

If your New Year’s resolutions include doing more to help others in our community, read on for a discussion of food bank design, and how you can support food security for all in Washington.

Food Security and Food Bank Design in Washington

On chilly winter days, nourishing food provides us much-needed physical and mental sustenance.  However, many of our neighbors can’t take regular access to healthy food for granted. Fifteen percent of adults in King County experience food insecurity, slightly higher than the statewide average of 13%. In some neighborhoods in King County, as many as 31% of residents (in Highline) report having run out of food during the preceding year (the areas with the next highest rates of food insecurity are Des Moines and Normandy Park (26%), and Burien (24%)). And an estimated 20% of Washington State’s children live in households with inadequate food access.

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The federal government has historically been a significant funding source for programs addressing food insecurity, with grants such as USDA’s SNAP (the Basic Food Program in Washington) and WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children); HUD’s Community Development Block Grants (supporting meals for seniors and other programs serving people with low incomes); and the Community Services Block Grants (supporting, among other programs, the community action agencies profiled in our October 2017 newsletter).

The proposed presidential budget will reduce or eliminate several of these funding sources.  If implemented, these changes will increase pressure on local governments and food banks to support access to healthy food for everyone.

Washington’s food banks serve an incredibly diverse range of clients. The Bellingham Food Bank regularly translates its printed materials into Russian and Spanish to best serve its clients, according to Kristin Costanza. The West Seattle Food Bank (a former EW client) “serves clients from every ethnicity and nationality,” according to Lester Yuh. “Some had been living a middle-class life, got ill, and got knocked off track.  Others are homeless.  Many are in poverty because of mental illness.”

While design concerns vary depending on location and population served, food banks are united in their resourcefulness and their commitment to clients’ dignity.

Grocery Store Model
Historically, food banks served clients through a distribution line: clients would carry a box or bag along a series of tables at which staff or volunteers would hand them various food items.

Over the past few years, many food banks have transitioned to a grocery store model: clients carry baskets or push shopping carts, and select their own items from shelves and coolers.  Heidi Hutchins of EW client Granite Falls Community Coalition observed “a huge shift in morale when our food bank clients got a choice.”  Lester Yuh of West Seattle Food Bank, which transitioned to the grocery store model last year, notes that they made the change to improve clients’ experience.  As an added bonus, they discovered the grocery store model is also significantly more efficient: “When you have a line, it can only move as fast as the slowest person.  Now we can move a higher volume of people through faster, and it puts much less pressure on the facility and volunteers as well as clients.” The Bellingham Food Bank’s Kristin Costanza reports that they serve 30% more clients with the grocery store model.

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Making the Most of Their Space
Food bank staff and volunteers have an amazing capacity to make the most of whatever space they have.  Some facilities are purpose-built, and can offer features such as the West Seattle Food Bank’s inviting lobby. “We maintain harmony between our agency and clients through regular friendly interactions in our lobby: asking people’s opinions, engaging with people who are angry, and checking in on people’s health,” observes Lester Yuh.

The Granite Falls Community Coalition’s Food Bank, which currently operates out of a trailer, erects canopies to shield people waiting outside when it rains.  A nutritionist sets up a table outside with a hot plate, where she demonstrates how to prepare healthy dishes using the ingredients available that day at the food bank.  She is joined by agencies offering information and referrals on health care and social services.

Volunteers of America of Western Washington’s Sultan Food Bank (another EW client) is planning a move from a smaller building where clients are served at a counter, to a spacious A-frame building that will be shared with a senior center.  The new facility will expand storage closets, and outfit them with rolling wire shelves and reach-in coolers.  These improvements will allow the food bank to shift to the grocery store model, while retaining the space’s current use as a hub for senior meals and activities.  The Foothills Food Bank’s food distribution area (in East Whatcom Regional Resource Center’s Building 2, profiled in our March 2017 newsletter) will double as a community meeting space.

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Other Innovations
Some food banks are growing produce on-site.  The Foothills Food Bank will feature an outdoor gleaning sink for rinsing donations dropped off by local farmers as well as by individuals who grow produce in the adjacent community garden.

The Bellingham Food Bank’s volunteer gleaners pick produce that would not otherwise be harvested from people’s orchards and farms.  They also partner with pig farmers, who pick up food from the food bank that is no longer suitable for human consumption.

In response to the higher rates of food insecurity among children, many food banks now rely on volunteers to run backpack programs that send children home on Friday afternoons with a pack full of healthy, kid-friendly foods that are easy to prepare.  Food banks also frequently offer home delivery or mobile food pantries, to reach individuals who cannot easily visit their facility.

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How Can You Help?
All food banks depend heavily on financial support to cover their operating costs and purchase needed food.  They often appreciate donations of money more than food donations, because their wholesale purchasing relationships allow them to buy more for less. “With a one-dollar donation, we can buy $8-12 of food,” according to Kristin Costanza of the Bellingham Food Bank.  Judi Yazzolino of West Seattle Food Bank notes that money donations also allow their food bank to purchase whatever they need most - which is most often produce and child-friendly food for their backpack program.

Most food banks also depend heavily on volunteers for work such as picking up donations, packing backpacks for schoolchildren, and delivering food to people who are homebound.

A Seattle-based option for those seeking a one-time volunteering opportunity is PCC Food Packaging Work Parties, hosted by several area food banks. Judi Yazzolino observes that these are a great way for families and working individuals to get involved, since they take place in the evening rather than during the daytime hours when food banks are usually open.

Check with your local food bank for their specific needs.  Some food banks do appreciate donations of certain items that they do not generally buy themselves, such as pet food or baby food.  Others, such as the Granite Falls Community Coalition Food Bank, are working to build new facilities and would appreciate donations of services as well as money.

To find the food bank nearest you, visit this locator on the Food Lifeline website.

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