South King County Food Banks Face Severe Shortages — And There’s No End in Sight

by Carolyn Bick

It’s sunny, and beginning to get warm on an afternoon in early May, when people start to line up outside the White Center Food Bank. Clad in masks, they patiently wait an adequate distance from each other to choose food the National Guard is helping food bank workers distribute.

This outdoor model is the latest iteration of food service the food bank has tried, Associate Executive Director Carmen Smith said. So far, it’s also the most successful, she said. Usually, the food bank operates in a grocery store model, which allows patrons the freedom to choose their own items, and mitigate the stigma associated with needing to use a food bank. But once the novel coronavirus pandemic hit the state, Smith and her fellow food bank employees found that the inside of the food bank was just too small to allow for safe social distancing practices. Having volunteers shop for the patrons’ food was also a no-go, because it’s just too hard to shop for someone else, Smith said.

“Our volunteers were getting a little tripped up, because they wanted to make sure that they were making really good decisions for the families that were coming to us, and that’s hard to do,” Smith said. “It’s hard … navigating between ensuring that we are still offering families choice, when so many of them have had that taken away in so many other aspects of their lives, and still operating in an efficient manner.”

So, she said, the food bank settled on an outdoor market-style method that allows patrons to choose the food they want. 

Food bank patrons choose food at the White Center Food Bank in Seattle, Washington, on May 7, 2020. (Photo: Carolyn Bick)

But the current system is the least of Smith’s worries. Like other South King County food banks, White Center Food Bank has seen a dramatic surge in the number of families using its services, a surge that’s likely tied to job loss. Despite the fact that Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Safe Start” phased reopening plan is underway, there is no indication that these families will be able to stop using the food banks anytime soon, because conditions are so unpredictable. And though the food supply is fairly steady right now, access to fresh produce may prove more difficult, as the spring harvest season peters out. Moreover, due to a complex confluence of factors, global supply chains are already starting to wear thin. Canned and shelf-stable foods, as well as basic necessities are also more difficult to come by, due in part to hoarding and panic-buying coupled with food banks’ limited budgets. 

All of this leaves food banks with a difficult and complex question to answer: how can they get food, if there is no food to be had, in the face of exponentially burgeoning need among a diverse clientele?

Food bank patrons wait to get food at the White Center Food Bank in Seattle, Washington, on May 7, 2020. (Photo: Carolyn Bick)

One of the biggest issues facing South King County food banks is their ability to get their hands on culturally relevant food to feed a diverse population. This month, Smith said, one of her primary concerns was where to get halal meat for White Center’s Muslim population, who has been observing Ramadan in April and May. Usually, the food bank puts together Ramadan bags for Muslim families, with specialty foods included for the evening when they break their fast. That food often comes from food drives and the food bank’s limited spending budget. This year, due to shortages, it had to work much harder to get what in the past would have been considered the basics.

“Luckily, we were able to partner with our regular halal meat distributor … so we were able to offer culturally relevant food to those folks and celebrate their holiday. But, in the immediate future, should we need more, I’m not sure what that’s going to look like,” Smith said. “Some communities are still hosting food drives for us, so we give them a food list that usually includes some culturally relevant items that are maybe harder for us to get on their own, and we’ve seen the community food drives go up and down. I don’t really know what tomorrow will bring.”

Food bank patrons choose food at the White Center Food Bank in Seattle, Washington, on May 7, 2020. (Photo: Carolyn Bick)

The food bank is currently serving upwards of 100 people per day, including at least 20 new families every day. Of the food bank’s patron base, 75 percent are people of color. That number is broken down even further into several different communities of color. The food bank also serves a community base that speaks at least eight different languages. And every day, Smith said, more and more new families show up to use the food bank.

“I think the biggest concern is having to move to a form of distribution where we have to take a one-box-fits-all approach, and I think that’s what’s weighing most heavy on our minds, because a one-box-fits-all approach doesn’t work for us here,” she said.

Rainier Valley Food Bank’s Executive Director Gloria Hatcher-Mays said the food bank’s clientele has also drastically increased since the outbreak. Home deliveries have rocketed up from 300 per week to 1,200 per week, and there are now people on a waiting list. Hatcher-Mays said that, if it has the money and capacity to expand, the food bank will try to increase home deliveries to 1,800 per week. 

The food bank’s Rainier Avenue distribution site has also seen an increase, and currently averages 600–700 in-person food pickups per week. These numbers include the food bank’s program for unhoused people, which is up by 50 percent, and currently stands at 2,000 bags per month; and the food bank’s backpack program, which contributes food to 10 different schools. The latter program has seen a 46 percent increase in the amount of food required to meet the need.

The inside of the White Center Food Bank in Seattle, Washington, is empty on May 7, 2020, as the food bank has moved operations outside, for now. (Photo: Carolyn Bick)

At first, Hatcher-Mays said, the food bank was able to keep up with the increasing demand, but that is no longer the case. In the past, she said, the food bank had been able to make a couple of large bulk orders through other outlets, and get by on food donated by grocery stores. But the stores don’t have much extra food, and bulk orders of specific foods aren’t always available, right now. The food bank has been heavily relying on the Washington-based food sourcing nonprofit Food Lifeline, which doesn’t always have the needed food.

“The problem is that there is a limitation on what is available to us. We have asked Food Lifeline … to provide more shelf-stable items, so we have that flexibility in including those items. So, if we need to fill in for something that’s not fresh, like fresh produce, we’ll have canned vegetables that we can send home, instead,” Hatcher-Mays said. “But it’s a matter of sourcing a variety of foods that would normally be available to us, versus what’s happening now.”

The Rainier Valley Food Bank’s patrons are also mostly people of color. Hatcher-Mays said the food bank sees a majority Asian American population, and that many of the people who come through the food bank are seniors. 

As in White Center, all of these groups have their own dietary needs and list of culturally relevant foods. Hatcher-Mays said she thinks the food bank has one last order of halal chicken, but doesn’t have much in the way of kosher food, and is running low on various vegetables used in Asian dishes. Though the overall goal is to ensure people are fed, she said, being unable to choose food is not an ideal situation. In some cases, it may mean some patrons get less than they need, because of religious dietary restrictions. They may not be able to make up the missing food from their own pockets, either.

“Where our food bank is located is the highest density of both people of color and poverty in the city of Seattle,” Hatcher-Mays said.

At the Tukwila Pantry, the situation is no different. The area has a high poverty rate, and a large population of immigrants and refugees, most of whom don’t speak English very well.

“Our schools have [80] languages in them, and our pantry clientele is very representative of that,” said Jan Bolerjack, Riverton Park United Methodist Church’s pastor and one of the food bank’s executive directors. “Eighty percent of our kids are on free and reduced lunch. … So, that’s who we are. A lot of diversity, a lot of different languages.”

Food bank patrons choose food at the White Center Food Bank in Seattle, Washington, on May 7, 2020. (Photo: Carolyn Bick)

As with the White Center Food Bank, need in the area has increased dramatically. Bolerjack said in a follow-up email that before the novel coronavirus outbreak, they’d served 60–80 families per week. When the crisis began, that number crept up to about 350 families. Now, it’s around 1,000 families per week — and still growing.

Of those families, she said, 75 percent said they were from Tukwila, but others came from as far away as Sammamish and Kirkland, underscoring the escalating need these communities are facing. To make things more difficult, the food bank has a 15-year-old truck that it’s been relying on since before the pandemic to deliver food to those who couldn’t physically make it to the food bank. These days, the food bank needs to work the clunky old truck overtime, as it needs to deliver food to those who had previously visited the food bank in person, but currently can’t safely venture out. The truck, with more than 575,000 miles on it, is barely limping along. Bolerjack and her fellow food bank employees are concerned that the truck won’t make it, but don’t have the funds to replace it.

“We brought in a refrigerated trailer, so we could put more food in it, which runs on diesel, so suddenly we have an expense for diesel fuel that was not in the budget,” Bolerjack said. “We’ve … had to buy bags and boxes, had to pay some extra staff, extra time, and do some other expenses, including the truck. So, we’re not rolling in dough. We’re just barely getting by.”

The entryway to the White Center Food Bank in Seattle, Washington, is temporarily closed on May 7, 2020, as the food bank has changed to outdoor service, for now. (Photo: Carolyn Bick)

The food bank recently announced its Get-A-Truck Campaign in partnership with the Tukwila Children’s Foundation, which gave the Tukwila Pantry a $5,000 grant towards the truck. The campaign aims to raise an additional $15,000 to cover the cost of a new truck.

Though the Auburn Food Bank is smaller, and its patronage demographics more or less an even amount of people of color and white people, its situation is no less dire. Executive Director Debbie Christian is also worried about how to meet increasing need in the face of a dwindling supply. She said there are 20–30 new families every day, up from the food bank’s usual three or four new families a day, bringing the total amount of people served to 500 per week.

Right around now is when Christian would be holding food drives to source canned and shelf-stable foods to save up for the summer-to-autumn months, when there will be less fresh produce. Typically, the three events the food bank would normally hold would bring in around 100,000 lbs. of food and about $200,000 to keep it going through the rest of the year. Though monetary donations are up, Christian can’t get a hold of all the food the food bank needs, regardless of how much money it has. The grocery stores are relatively barren of the kinds of food the food bank needs. There’s more frozen food than there is canned or shelf-stable food, she said.

“If these farmers are not able to reproduce, that fresh [food] is going to be really hard to come up with,” Christian said. “I think food banks themselves, even though they may be tight right now, I think we are going to have a bigger panic come July, August, September, than we do right now.”

Still, the money is greatly appreciated and needed, she said: the Auburn Food Bank also helps people pay their rent and bills. Though there is a statewide moratorium on evictions, right now, that doesn’t mean that people won’t owe back rent, and that the bills have stopped coming, she said.

White Center Food Bank Executive Director Carmen Smith, center, helps a food bank patron at the White Center Food Bank in Seattle, Washington, on May 7, 2020. (Photo: Carolyn Bick)

The White Center Food Bank, Rainier Valley Food Bank, and Tukwila Pantry are also facing challenges when it comes to buying canned and self-stable goods. Smith said that she’s been hearing from other food banks that they are having difficulty placing bulk orders, as the national supply chain stretches thin. 

Though Smith said the White Center Food Bank has received “an outpouring” of monetary support, and the food supply raised through different food drives is currently fairly stable, this is not the case with the Tukwila Pantry. Bolerjack said the food bank has been “working pretty hard to get bread,” she said, and though it’s been running as many grocery rescue routes as possible, the stores’ canned and shelf-stable items have already been picked over. Hardly anything is left.

“It’s the canned food, the pasta, and the rice and stuff that we can’t purchase. There’s no place we can purchase it from,” Bolerjack said. “Northwest Harvest and Food Lifeline, both have been great partners, and they’ve been giving us emergency boxes and lots of supplies, but their supply chain is broken, too.”

Bolerjack said the food bank is “very much dependent on what happens out there” in the nation’s capital. While food banks are currently benefiting from produce growers’ surpluses that had been meant to go to the restaurant and entertainment industry, that won’t last for long, and the meat and dairy industries have already fallen on difficult times.

But it’s not just food that’s hard to get. Since the pandemic began, people have been hoarding necessities like toilet paper, soap, hygiene products for people who menstruate, and diapers. Bolerjack said that though the Tukwila Pantry has received big donations of these products, more and more families need them every day.

“We are out of almost everything,” Bolerjack said. “We just can’t get enough of that stuff.”

Currently, only the White Center Food Bank and the Tukwila Pantry have had to rely on the National Guard for aid in filling the gaps left in their volunteer bases. Most of their usual volunteers are older folks, who currently can’t safely venture out to make deliveries. Though the food bank does not require patrons to declare citizenship status for service, Smith said she was initially worried that the National Guard’s presence would deter some from showing up, since the food bank probably serves some undocumented people. That hasn’t happened. Still, as a precaution, she won’t be asking the National Guard to make home deliveries.

From left to right, members of the National Guard Peter Tynam, Maggie Lynn, and Jiro Rincon wait to serve food bank patrons at the White Center Food Bank in Seattle, Washington, on May 7, 2020. (Photo: Carolyn Bick)

Hatcher-Mays said that she sees this crisis lasting well beyond a return to relative normalcy. But none of the food banks have a specific plan in place to meet the challenge, because they simply don’t know what form it will take. Conditions are just too unpredictable, and they can’t control food supply chains. Right now, all they can do is what they have been doing: squirreling away what funds they can, focusing on sourcing shelf-stable foods, and working through the crisis as it plays out.

But this effort is hampered by the current federal push to reopen, Hatcher-Mays said. She fears a second, more lethal wave of the virus that will carry with it even greater negative economic and social impacts.

“People will fatigue. They want to care. They want to be concerned. But it’s a psychological impact, after a while, too, sort of a group psyche that gets affected by the persistent, negative impact,” Hatcher-Mays said. “It worries me for the nation, it worries me for the state, and it worries me for our counties.”

Donate money to the White Center Food Bank here. The food bank accepts donations MondayFriday from 8 a.m.4 p.m. See the food bank’s donation page for details about what foods it needs and can accept. To use the food bank, check the site’s services and hours page. To sign up for food delivery, check to see that you live within the food bank’s service area, and register here. The food bank is located at 10829 8th Ave. SW, Seattle, WA 98146, and can be reached at 206-762-2848 or via an online contact form.

Donate money to the Rainier Valley Food Bank here. The food bank accepts donations TuesdaySaturday from 8 a.m.3 p.m. See the food bank’s donation page for details about what foods it needs and can accept. To use the food bank, check the site’s programs page. To sign up for the food delivery waitlist, fill out this form. The form includes information about the food bank’s distribution area. The food bank is located at 4205 Rainier Ave. S., Seattle, WA 98118, and can be reached at 206-723-4105 or info@rvfb.org.

Donate money to the Tukwila Pantry here. The page also includes information for those uncomfortable donating money online. Find the list of needed items here. The food bank is open TuesdaySaturday from 8 a.m.4 p.m., but its service days vary. Find more information about service hours here. The food bank is located at 3118 S. 140th St., Tukwila, WA 98168, and can be reached at 206-431-8293 or operations@tukwilapantry.org.

Donate money to the Auburn Food Bank here. The page also includes information for those uncomfortable donating money online, as well as information about donating food. The food bank accepts food donations Monday – Friday 8 a.m. – 3 p.m., and weekend donations can be arranged. Find information about service hours and home delivery here. The food bank is located at 930 18th Pl. NE, Auburn, WA 98002 and can be reached at 253-833-8925 or an online contact form here.

Donate money to Food Lifeline here. Find a food bank near you here. Contact Food Lifeline at 1-877-404-7543 or 206-545-6600.

Donate money to Northwest Harvest here. Contact Northwest Harvest here, or by calling 1-800-722-6924.

Featured image: An elder, center, waits for her companion, right, at the White Center Food Bank in Seattle, Washington, on May 7, 2020. (Photo: Carolyn Bick)

An earlier version of this article mistakenly listed Smith’s title as Executive Director of the White Center Food Bank.


Carolyn Bick is a journalist and photographer based in South Seattle. You can reach them here.

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