Jim Hull, a retired clown and neighborhood funny man, loaded his Ford Taurus with a 20-pound bag of groceries he’d just picked up at Eloise’s Cooking Pot Food Bank.
“It’s been a godsend,” Hull, 56, said of the food bank at 3543 McKinley Ave. E. on Tacoma’s East Side. “It helps to support my wife and myself. Most of what we eat comes from the food bank.”
George Rigdon, 52, a volunteer and also a shopper at the food bank, drops in because she is retired and needs the groceries.
“It feels good to help somebody out knowing that they’re in the same same situation you’re in,” said Rigdon, who began volunteering at the food bank in 2012 after 28 years off and on as a candy packer for Brown and Haley.
Some food banks give out prepacked bags of groceries with items a person might not need, she said.
“Here you get to pick what you like,” Rigdon said.
Founder Ahndrea Blue wants the food bank to provide a traditional shopping experience by offering a variety of choices for families facing financial difficulties.
“We want people to eat what they normally eat,” she said. “They go in and shop for what they want.”
Eloise’s Cooking Pot Food Bank is a branch of the Making a Difference Foundation, which Blue founded in 2003. Last year, the food bank gave about 1.5 million pounds of food to 16,000 households.
In February, the food bank, primarily staffed by volunteers, received the Gold Star Community Partner award from the Community Partnership office of Tacoma Public Schools.
It was picked because of the 50 Thanksgiving meals it provided to families at Lister Elementary School.
“It was pretty humbling,” Blue said of the honor.
Last fall, Linda Bourlet, the family liaison at Lister, called around town for donations to the school’s Thanksgiving meal. The school has the highest poverty rate in the Tacoma School District, with a 94 percent free and reduced lunch population, she said.
Within an hour of Bourlet emailing Eloise’s, Blue called her with an immediate offer to help.
“I was literally in shock and immediately began crying,” Bourlet said.
Two days before the holiday, Blue provided enough food for 50 families.
“The boxes were enormous,” Bourlet said.
The level of commitment inspired Bourlet to nominate Blue and the food bank for the community partnership honor.
“Ahndrea changed the lives of over one-tenth of our population and all of our staff,” Bourlet said.
ALL IN THE CARDS
On a recent afternoon, 15 people lined up at the door of the storefront food bank, located next to a vacant business, a bar and a hair salon. They drove up in cars or walked over from the neighborhood.
One of the staff members at the food bank said about 500 families would show up that day.
Plastic crates stacked on steel shelves line three walls of the storefront. The crates hold eggplant, tomatoes, spinach, potatoes, onions, rice, cereal, milk, juice and baby food.
Before they start, shoppers are given a playing card that represents the number of people they’re buying for. They hold the card in one hand as they pick out groceries.
Volunteers standing by each shelf tell people how much of each item they can take, based on the number on the playing card.
“You can have one milk, one juice,” a volunteer tells a shopper.
Four refrigerators filled with yogurt, eggs and meat line the wall across from the entrance. Rows of children’s books, stuffed animals and boxes of Legos fill a wooden bookcase next to the door.
A sign asks: “Do you need? Special dietary foods, hygiene products, baby food, diapers, pet food, clothing items, prayer, ethnic food. PLEASE LET US KNOW.”
“IT’S MY MAINSTAY”
Without Eloise’s, said Hull, a former professional clown and Greyhound employee, he would be hard-pressed to feed himself and his wife.
“I don’t like to have to come,” he said, but financial difficulties make it necessary after he lost his job at the bus company in 2010.
“It’s my mainstay,” said Hull, who has dropped by the food bank once a week since 2014. He grew up in the neighborhood and went to schools within blocks of the food bank.
“I really enjoy the vegetables,” he said.
He bought his home 19 years ago “to spread some light into the neighborhood,” he said.
At the time, he performed as a clown at weekend parties and on Wednesdays at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital and Health Center in Tacoma.
On occasion, the clown can be coaxed out of retirement for a show. At the food bank’s request, Hull recently sang, filled balloons and juggled at the McKinley Hill Street Fair.
Rigdon, the former candy packer, began volunteering at Eloise’s by driving a truck from store to store to pick up donations. Now she comes in on Thursdays to divide boxes of meat and bulk sacks of vegetables and grains into Ziploc bags.
The best thing about the food bank is the variety in the ever-changing inventory of produce, she said.
“Different families like different things,” Rigdon said.
FILLING A NEED
The East Side doesn’t have many grocery options — a couple of convenience stores, an Asian grocery store and a deli, Rigdon said. Ever since the Albertsons on 38th Street closed, residents who don’t have cars have been left with few choices.
To ease that “food desert” problem, Blue started Eloise’s.
It’s named for Blue’s grandmother. Originally from the South, she enjoyed cooking food from the region in a cast-iron skillet and opened her Los Angeles home to all who needed a meal, Blue said.
The food bank collects donations from local stores, including Safeway and Walmart, and the Emergency Food Network, the Pierce County-based organization that gives to area food banks.
Apex Cold Storage in Fife refrigerates Eloise’s produce and meat for free.
The food bank also grows herbs in a community garden in South Tacoma.
Blue said she runs the food bank because she thinks it is the right thing to do.
“We all have the capacity to impact someone’s life,” she said.