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Washington Rushes to Relieve Food Banks, Which Could Be Fully Depleted in Two Weeks

Gov. Jay Inslee announced a fund to help provide money to food programs as supplies dwindle during the coronavirus pandemic

A small collection of canned food on a wooden table
Food banks have experienced a shortage of supplies and volunteers in recent weeks.
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Recently, a report from the Washington’s Emergency Operations Center raised alarms about a food bank crisis developing in the state as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. According to Crosscut, shelves at food banks across the state “could be empty in two weeks,” if help doesn’t arrive soon. High demand at grocery stores and a shortage of food bank volunteers have put an enormous strain on these organizations, which serve some of the state’s most vulnerable communities. There are 1.6 million Washingtonians in need of food assistance, double last year’s number, and that could rise exponentially with the unemployment rate skyrocketing.

Local officials are looking at ways to address the growing crisis. Last week, Gov. Jay Inslee announced that the National Guard would be called upon to help distribute food in Washington, relieving some of the burden on food banks. And on Tuesday, Inslee and several local nonprofits revealed a new initiative called the WA Food Fund to raise money for food assistance programs in Washington, specifically Second Harvest, Food Lifeline, and Northwest Harvest. These are the main distributors to food banks across the state, but their buying power and reserves have been drastically reduced during the pandemic.

“The money can’t come soon enough,” Food Lifeline media officer Mark Coleman tells Eater Seattle. His organization — which chef Tom Douglas has supported — supplies nearly half the food for 300 food banks, shelters, and other hunger relief organizations in Washington. Food from grocery stores make up nearly half of the donations, but that has been depleted. And while Food Lifeline usually brings in 19,000 volunteers a year, it is currently relying on only 15 to 20 volunteers at the moment.

Coleman says the organization has restructured in an attempt to produce between 100,000 to 300,000 bags of food from bulk orders per week to make up for recent donation losses (each bag contains about 22 pounds of non-perishable items, such as peanut butter and canned goods, and are moved on large pallets). To keep up with demand, it has also rented a massive 250,000 square-foot warehouse in SoDo, which gives volunteers and workers social distancing room — between six to 10 feet of space between stations, with conveyor belts that help manage the effort, so there is minimal contact at the warehouse.

Further down the supply chain, the Seattle area food banks that rely on organizations like Food Lifeline have also had to make drastic adjustments. “Recovering groceries has been challenging, especially as everyone needs to stock their pantries and stores,” says Jen Muzia, executive director of Ballard Food Bank. “Some of those items that we all keep in our pantries have been harder to come by, such as soups and chilis.”

As Muzia explains, the Ballard Food Bank has also made structural changes for the safety of volunteers and those who rely on the organization. “We moved from a grocery store style food bank to a personal shopper model to a pre-packed bag model,” she says. “For our neighbors, this meant they received less food than they would normally select during their own shopping experience at the food bank. But we also do delivery and drive-throughs, and are trying to get more food out by distributing this way.”

Meanwhile, Coleman speculates that the National Guard could potentially help the Food Lifeline’s new, adjusted efforts, while the money from the WA Food Fund could be put to work immediately once it comes through. But time is clearly of the essence. “The full effort will take several million dollars,” he says. “And we could use as much participation in donating as possible.”

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