Even before the pandemic lockdowns caused unemployment to skyrocket, millions of Americans were not able to feed their families.
“We, as a nation, are having a hunger crisis,” Mike Cohen, executive director of the Bellingham Food Bank, said. This crisis was here before COVID-19.
The Bellingham Food Bank was serving the equivalent of 20% of the city’s population before the pandemic struck, Cohen said. The food bank did not see a huge increase due to COVID, he said, because it is already one of the busiest food banks in the region, currently assisting about 2,000 families a week.
However, Helping Hands, a Skagit County food bank, saw an almost overnight increase from feeding 750 families to 1,000 as the pandemic struck, according to development director Nichole Long. The Skagit Valley Health Department also relies on Helping Hands to deliver food when families have been quarantined and are unable to go grocery shopping.
“These [new customers] are working-class families who had never had to have food assistance before,” Long said.
The need as the pandemic broke was so overwhelming that Helping Hands asked the National Guard to assist in distributing food. At one time, Helping Hands had a supply of only a few weeks of food left and needed to fundraise to purchase more.
High numbers in the islands
In San Juan County, the three small food banks on San Juan Island, Orcas and Lopez are also struggling to keep up with the need.
Amanda Sparks, manager of the Orcas Island Food Bank, said they saw a 147% increase in households served from February to April in 2020. During the summer months, numbers decreased slowly, only to spike again from September through December. “We expect to maintain high numbers through early spring of 2021 as uncertainties surrounding COVID continue to unfold,” Sparks added. The food bank is currently serving 220 households a week.
For years the Lopez Island Food Bank operated out of Grace Church in Lopez Village. Volunteers and coordinators would cart food to the church where it was left out for those in need to help themselves, according to Katherine Bryant Ingman, the Lopez Island Resource Center’s food security program manager. Now the food bank has their own space near the Lopez Island School District, and currently serves over 140 households.
The Friday Harbor Food Bank, located on San Juan Island, the highest populated island in the archipelago, also saw an increase, although manager Rachelle Radonski did not have specific numbers on hand.
“We are seeing more families coming in,” Radonski said. “Parents are unable to work either because their jobs got cut back, or they got laid off, or they can’t afford child care.” As a result, the Friday Harbor Food Bank has been working to provide kid-friendly foods by offering items like peanut butter and jelly sandwich materials that children can fix themselves.
“Stay nimble, be creative, and stay one step ahead in your thinking,” Sparks of Orcas said when asked about how she coped with the onslaught of changes.
Nearly all five of the food banks found ways to work with local farmers.
The Bellingham Food Bank received funding from the state to purchase produce from farmers markets. The food was used by Bellingham Public Schools to feed students, according to Cohen. They also partnered with the Bellingham Public Schools in an After Hours Dinner Program which offers hot dinners to anyone under the age of 18.
Ingman explained that the Lopez Food Bank, through donations from a fundraiser, was able to buy up contracts local farmers had with local restaurants that had closed or had minimal business due to the pandemic. This win-win solution kept farmers in business and provided those in need of food with healthy locally grown produce.
“It’s exciting to see how food cultures develop here, being stewards of our resources while keeping in mind our island limitations,” Ingman said.
Sparks said Orcas Island Food Bank is working closely with Orcas Island farms “We have established an equitable system that increases our access to locally grown and raised foods,” Sparks said. She explained that they established a soup-making program that uses unsellable produce and stock bones.
Food waste from the soups is returned to the farms for composting, Sparks added. “We have created and are participating in a local regenerative food system.”
Helping Hands in the Skagit set up a similar program, according to Long, by tapping into both local farmers and restaurant suppliers to increase their food supply. Skagit Valley farms also reached out to Helping Hands when they had excess crops, which kept edible food out of landfills and provided nutritious produce to those who needed it.
“We want to provide access to quality food,” Long said. “Not just fill up their bellies, but have healthy food.”
Safe supply chains
According to Radonski in Friday Harbor, receiving food is one of the biggest challenges. “When a packing plant or shipping company had an outbreak, food deliveries were delayed,” she said, noting that an Everett food bank completely ran out of food a month ago.
“Keeping everyone safe has been a challenge. If there is any sort of crack in our system,” Skagit’s Long said, “a thousand families go without food for the week.”
For Sparks of Orcas the pandemic has highlighted that food security in the islands means having a robust relationship with local food producers. “Without this relationship, we leave ourselves vulnerable to supply chain disruptions that we have no control over,” she said.
Long said she would like to see Washington form some type of state emergency food response, not only in case of future pandemics, but in case of economic or natural disasters as well.
Those vital volunteers
Volunteer burnout has been a challenge for Bellingham’s Cohen. Throughout the pandemic, the intensity of need, safety challenges and constant changes have strained and exhausted volunteers.
Pre-COVID, the Bellingham Food Bank was set up like a grocery store and carried a wide variety of foods with scores of volunteers on site, sorting and packaging donations. When COVID hit, the food bank turned into more of an assembly line, packing up and delivering orders but unable to provide the range of dietary options.
“We have a plan now, but the supply chain could change so we have been squireling things away. It has been exhausting on our volunteers,” Cohen said.
Radonski in Friday Harbor agreed that volunteers have worked extremely hard to ensure people get the food they need safely, even when it meant volunteers themselves have had to refrain from participating.
“This is the place the volunteers want to be. They take pride in ownership,” Radonski said. The food bank is a place where they can interact socially with the clients as well as fellow volunteers.
Ingman on Lopez said that creating an agreement with volunteers requiring them to quarantine after off-island trips felt odd, but her volunteers didn’t bat an eye.
“It’s been amazing to see the support, people showing up ready to serve. It’s the thing they look forward to every week,” Ingman said.
The Orcas Food Bank has 63 rotating volunteers who have been working their tails off for nearly a year, Sparks said, and the staff works to ensure these volunteers remain enthusiastic and keep coming back.
“Most of our volunteers are also customers. We are nothing without our volunteers,” she said.
Due to safety concerns over the age and health of many of the Helping Hands volunteers in the Skagit, many were asked to stay home as the National Guard stepped up, Long explained.
“We are beginning to welcome back some of them, and they have been patiently, optimistically waiting,” she said.
Food security, food justice and economic recovery
Due to COVID, food banks increasingly need to buy directly from grocery store, Cohen said, making their expenses higher and donated money more important.
Food banks’ needs also change with fluctuating supplies. Sparks, Long, Ingham and Radonski all asked that people call before donating so specific weekly needs can be met.
Long said that the next mountain to climb will be the economic recovery. She and the staff and board of Helping Hands do not anticipate the economy to recover fully until well into 2022. Citing economic reports, speaking with clients about what they are seeing in the job market, and the heavy impact COVID lockdowns have had on the hospitality industry, she expects a long road toward solving the root causes of food insecurity.
“If anything positive came out of the pandemic, it’s that it shined a light on how vulnerable food security is and how many families, seniors and children are going hungry every day,” and the solution is not one-size-fits-all, Long said. “We all have to come to the table and have an honest conversation. COVID didn’t just shine a light on food insecurity, but housing and the economy as well.”
One of the first steps that Long would like to see is removing the stigma of needing food assistance.
“We have all been there,” she said. “We need to provide access to quality food on a state and national level.”
The three managers of the San Juan County food banks — Sparks, Ingman and Radonski — meet frequently to discuss challenges, needs and removing the stigma of coming to the food bank.
“We talk at least once a week about how to take away the stigma,” Radonski said. “We are going to be feeling the economic effects of COVID for a long time, so don’t be afraid to use the food bank.”
As one of the counties with the largest national income gaps, San Juan County faces its own hunger crisis, according to Sparks.
“The wage disparity in our county is one of the highest nationally, [and] the segment of our community experiencing hunger has increased dramatically due to the impact of COVID,” she said.
People with food insecurity often face other issues as well, said Ingman. The staff and volunteers at the Lopez Island Food Bank, for example, discovered one customer didn’t have enough firewood to keep warm.
Lack of housing is often an additional challenge. Radonski applauded the state for relaxing the address requirement for people to qualify for food bank assistance during the pandemic.
To get at the root of the hunger crisis, economic disparity must be addressed, said Cohen. “We are getting people really good food, but we are not doing anything to address their economic status.”
“We need to step way back and study the root causes of hunger,” he said. “We cannot food-bank our way out of it.”
Asked what individuals could do to help, Cohen advised, “Find your local food bank and ask how you can contribute.”
More information about each food bank is available online and by phone: