With the March 1 ending of pandemic-era increases in federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) food benefits, food budgets have tightened even further for thousands of local residents.
At a time when most residents are feeling the sting of inflationary food prices, the strain on many lower-income households is severe, even as the state legislature and local governments are stepping up to help.
A recent Washington state food security survey asked more than 5,000 respondents across 33 counties about food security and assistance.
To get more useful data, the survey sampled more low-income households than the state average, so county statistics may not represent the population as a whole. In the study, low food security is described as having to settle for less variety and lower quality and desirability in food, while very low food security means reduced food intake and more drastic changes in diet.
About 46% of the Whatcom County residents polled used some form of food assistance (fourth lowest among those surveyed in the state), while about 47% of polled Skagit County residents used it (fifth lowest statewide). San Juan County was not part of the survey.
The study found that food insecurity is higher in households with children.
Other food assistance includes food banks, school-lunch support and WIC (the federal supplemental program for women, infants and children). Over half of statewide respondents who reported issues with food insecurity said they used SNAP as a primary means of food assistance, with 44% patronizing food banks.
Twice as many food-insecure respondents rated their health and diet quality as poor or fair, compared to food-secure residents.
Anxiety and empty cupboards
They also reported experiencing greater levels of anxiety, depression and stress.
Bellingham resident Greg Gebhardt is feeling the pinch of reduced SNAP benefits.
The 58-year-old, who receives $1,600 in monthly disability benefits due to health issues that have included COPD, depression and cancer, recently saw his monthly SNAP food benefit fall from around $230 to just $23.
“It’s kind of a joke,” he said, “with the way prices are.”
Rent and utilities take most of Gebhardt’s disability checks, and such a low SNAP benefit will barely cover his monthly milk supply, he said.
Although he does visit local food banks, making the most of the food they offer requires knowing how to cook well, and Gebhardt — a bachelor — said he’s not very skilled at doing so. Although he’s learning, he points out that he can’t always find or afford all the ingredients needed for a particular recipe, especially if they’re organic.
“(I eat) a lot of soups and sandwiches,” Gebhardt said.
In lieu of cooking skills and food benefits, he’s now occasionally asking friends if he can join them for meals. Gebhardt is getting by, he said, but wishes his disability and food benefits could be increased by at least $100 or $200 a month.
“What I was getting, I was pretty much comfortable with it,” he said. “Now … I pretty much empty out my cupboard.”
The food you don’t buy
While food banks depend largely on individual donations of food and funds, they also get help from local restaurants and grocers reducing food waste. Some work directly with nearby businesses. Others get help from organizations such as Feeding America that coordinate with those restaurants and grocers.
Ever wondered what happens to the food that grocery stores and restaurants don’t sell before it spoils? The answer varies.
Some places offer aging merchandise to employees. After that, much of it is either donated or thrown away, depending on a store’s individual or corporate policy. Much of this food can wind up at food banks, but sometimes transportation costs and labor requirements exceed the donation’s value.
Bellingham Food Bank suspended their grocery food rescue program in March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, and never resumed it.
Operations manager Melanie Danner said the program no longer makes sense due to the amount of work they’d have to put in to receive a relatively small amount of food, compared to what other sources can provide them.
In the past, the organization would receive mostly produce and bread from grocery stores, along with smaller amounts of dairy, meat, dry goods and non-food items such as toilet paper and menstrual supplies, Danner said.
Food rescue, by the tons
Though Bellingham Food Bank does receive regular food donations from local restaurants including Avenue Bread and The Bagelry, they work with just one grocery store: Trader Joe’s. Each Monday through Thursday, food bank employees arrive at the store and receive several pallets of donated produce, baked goods and dry goods — as much as 1,000 pounds per day.
The Miracle Food Network in Ferndale reported that in 2022 it recovered 871,111 pounds of food, and with volunteers sorted the food into fit-for-human or fit-for-livestock consumption. Sorted and boxed food was distributed to 14 distribution hubs in Whatcom County; five food banks; school pantries at Western Washington University, Northwest Indian College and Whatcom Community College; three Whatcom school districts; and door-to-door in partnership with Project DASH, a DoorDash program.
Other local food banks utilize grocery store pick-ups to varying degrees, as do hunger relief organizations like Sustainable Connections. Their Food Recovery Program collects surplus prepared food from small-scale food producers such as restaurants, nursing homes, caterers and schools, and delivers to about 14 local agencies with a smaller number of clients for immediate consumption. “The [program] focuses on feeding folks that may not have a space to cook in or have the skills to prepare foods,” noted Brandi Hutton of Sustainable Connections.
Amy Esary, marketing and outreach director for the Community Food Co-op in Bellingham, said they donated around 100,000 pounds of food to Sustainable Connections last year, in addition to roughly $25,000 in cash register donations from shoppers. In total, 90% of their unsold products end up being donated instead of just thrown away, she said.
In Skagit County, the Helping Hands Food Bank gets about 30% of its food from grocery stores, according to chief executive officer Rebecca Skrinde — but that number used to be higher.
“We have seen a massive decline,” she said. “Part of that is COVID drove people to go to the grocery stores, and supply and demand has been out of balance. You can still see empty grocery store shelves and usually the overstock comes to the food banks. But we’re not seeing a lot of overstock.”
The selection of stores that contribute to Helping Hand’s cupboards is much larger than the Bellingham Food Bank’s and includes grocery stores like Haggen, Safeway, Fred Meyer and Food Pavilion, as well as larger retailers like Target, Costco and Wal-Mart, Skrinde said. Most of the stores are visited daily.
Helping Hand’s plentiful food rescuing is partly due to Feeding America, a nationwide nonprofit organization that partners with food banks and corporate businesses. Skinde said the organization and partnering stores work out the paperwork, leaving food banks to do the picking up. Food that doesn’t make the cut for food banks is donated to farms for animal feed.
Farm to food bank
Some food banks including Bellingham purchase directly from local farms and other producers, contracting at the beginning of the season for a portion of the harvest. This brings high-quality fresh produce to the food bank while providing a predictable income stream to small farmers, who are themselves often short of funds.
While Helping Hands currently lacks any of these purchasing agreements, Skrinde said they are looking into the program. Danner said Bellingham’s arrangements number over half a dozen, and don’t cause any competition with retail food outlets that also might be purchasing from these vendors.
To counteract the effect of expiring SNAP benefits, the Bellingham City Council used $500,000 worth of American Rescue Plan Act funds last year to craft a grant for the Bellingham and Salvation Army food banks. Since the Bellingham Food Bank channels supplies to other food programs in the region, that funding spread beyond the city limits.
While Danner said this funding is helpful, the number of households they serve grows continually. So, funding also needs to keep increasing.
At the state level, House Bill 1784’s passage through the state legislature will provide $28 million of food assistance through June 30. About $20 million would go directly to hunger relief organizations, with $6 million for senior services programs and targeted outreach for those impacted by food insecurity. Another $2 million would go towards a fruit and vegetable incentives program.
The bill unanimously passed both houses and now awaits Governor Jay Inslee’s signature.
Danner said she isn’t sure if the Bellingham Food Bank will receive any direct funding, but it will likely benefit from funds given directly to partners Northwest Harvest and Food Lifeline, resulting in those organizations having more to offer them in turn.
In Skagit, Skrinde said Helping Hands plans to apply for flexible food bank grants the state Department of Agriculture is expected to offer as part of HB1784. She expects the process to be competitive, but is optimistic.
“I know WSDA has our best interest in mind and have been very supportive,” she said.
Still, Skrinde said, food banks are having to get increasingly creative to find new avenues for food acquisition.
“Traditionally, food banks get food from individuals, grocery stores and the government,” she said. “That isn’t going to sustain us anymore.”
— Reported by Matt Benoit