As Holidays Approach, So Do Food Insecurity Concerns

by Elizabeth Turnbull

As the food-centric holidays of Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Year’s Day approach, many Seattlietes are confronted with maintaining financial and food security amid the new lockdown and further deliberations over future federal aid.

Various food banks in South Seattle have seen an increased need for food in the community from the beginning of the pandemic response in the spring. As happens every year around this time, this need has become even greater in preparation for the holidays.

“Every year we are the most busy during the holidays. A lot of families are working families that are living paycheck to paycheck, and this year was no different — and it was even heightened because of the pandemic,” said Carmen Smith, the associate executive director of White Center Food Bank. “A lot of folks have been out of work, just getting back to work, [or] out of work again.” 

The White Center Food Bank, which now serves individuals throughout the city and in surrounding areas such as Kent and Kirkland, has served 935 new households since the beginning of the year, meaning 3,010 individuals who make up those households started using their services this year for the first time. 

“We’ve actually been breaking our record, so to speak, in terms of the number of families we’re serving each day, the past two weeks,” Smith said. Their typical average is anywhere from 80 to 100 families, and now they’re seeing 120 to 130 families a day. 

Given the new state-mandated lockdown, which has restricted operations of restaurants, bars, and retail spaces — and the potential expiration of some federal unemployment benefits in the new year — the seriousness of holiday financial decisions for families is more pronounced.

“The holidays [are] a time of year for all of us to be able to celebrate something in some capacity. It brings a little bit of joy. But the holidays can be really expensive, too, if you’re trying to feed a family,” Smith said. “I think more families are watching their budgets more tightly and looking for different ways they’re able to make ends meet.”

Before the global pandemic hit Washington State, it had a food insecurity average of 10% to 15%. Since the implementation of the State’s first stay home order in March, 30% of Washington households have experienced food insecurity and 59% of these households had children living in the home, according to the first Washington State Food Security Survey.

To deal with unemployment connected to the country’s economic recession and pandemic lockdowns, many individuals have subsisted on unemployment benefits and the addition of a stimulus check. However, Congress’ deliberations on providing further federal relief have been drawn out, which is problematic as some unemployment benefits are set to dissipate or end in the near future. 

According to reporting from the Seattle Times, as many as 100,000 individuals use Pandemic Unemployment Assistance that is set to expire after December. The report also indicates Washington’s unemployment rate improved from an adjusted rate of 8.3% in September to 6% in October, but how the newly announced statewide containment measures will affect these numbers in the coming months is yet to be determined, as more layoffs are expected. 

Organizers, such as those at the Rainier Valley Food Bank, have noted more people are seeking rental assistance, help with job hunting, and mental health and other health care services. In addition, the need for to-go bags, which are often picked up by people that don’t have a house to cook in, went from 400 to 1,000 to-go bags distributed every week since the start of the pandemic.

Although this year has been a story of much need, it is also a story of much solidarity, and despite the pandemic, the Rainier Valley Food Bank has not seen a reduction in volunteers, as they now distribute food through home delivery in order to maintain social distancing practices.

For individuals who are not struggling financially or with food security, incorporating giving into holiday celebrations this year can be a way to help alleviate the suffering of the Seattle community as a whole. Gloria Hatcher-Mays, the executive director of the Rainier Valley Food Bank had some suggestions:

“To make your holiday special, maybe take something that you would have done anyway and convert it into an opportunity to be of service to the food bank.”

Liz Turnbull is a Seattle-based reporter.

Featured image by Alex Garland.

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