Food banks sound alarm on ‘crisis,’ growing demand in Washington State

As many as one out of every three people in Washington could face food insecurity because of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new report released by Northwest Harvest.

Leaders addressed the problem Wednesday in an online meeting with the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA), Northwest Harvest, and U.S. Congresswoman Kim Schrier.

They said that last fall about 851,000 people needed help from food pantries. Now that number is about 2 million, and it is expected to rise.

“Anyone who has been in a food bank line in the last few weeks, it’s clear (that) food insecurity is currently a crisis,” Christina Wong of Northwest Harvest said. “The situation has the potential to reach catastrophic levels.”

And food banks are worried that federal assistance helping their organizations and individuals will dry up before the crisis is over.

“We’re just concerned about what might happen later in the year if some of these programs are sunset without additional programs being put into place,” Northwest Harvest CEO Thomas Reynolds said.

Northwest Harvest, a major food bank, commissioned a report on food insecurity in the state as part of its role on Gov. Jay Inslee’s Food Security Coordination Team.

According to the report, as unemployment rises and more people reach poverty levels, sometime between August and December as many as 2.2 million people in Washington will rely on a food bank for help. That’s about a quarter of the state’s population.

“And it would be one in every three people if the worst-case scenarios present,” Reynolds said.

At the Ballard Food Bank on Thursday afternoon, people waited in long lines to pick up a bag of fresh groceries in a drive thru.

“When I first came here during the pandemic, there weren’t many cars in line but now it’s always out the door. It’s pretty crazy,” said Jay Todd, there to help pick up groceries for his family.

Members of the Washington National Guard were there, helping pack and distribute food to those in line. They also delivered groceries to those unable to come.

The Ballard Food Bank says they served 3,200 families in February, but now that number has almost doubled.

Many people in the line said they lost their jobs because of COVID-19.

“I was selling merchandise at concerts and music venues,” said Katie Hosler, there to pick up food with a friend who also lost her job.

“I lost my job because of the quarantine and pandemic, and I’ve been coming here for the whole quarantine and it’s been so helpful. I’m so grateful that this exists,” Hosler said. “I don’t know what I would do without it.”

People say having access to the food bank is how they make ends meet.

“In the conditions and times we’re living in right now, it’s a blessing,” said Hajji Ahmad, a Seattle resident. He said he’s been coming to the food bank for about a month and a half.

The Ballard Food Bank said they have not needed to turn anyone away.

“We haven’t run out, but we’ve run short,” Executive Director Jen Muzia said. “Sometimes meat has been harder to get.” Shortages of soup and peanut butter have also occurred.

WSDA Director Derek Sanderson said during Wednesday’s meeting that the food insecurity crisis will need more federal help.

“Since early March we’ve been managing an unprecedented level of food assistance,” Sanderson said.

Congresswoman Kim Schrier introduced a bill this month to allow states to buy directly from small- and medium-sized farming operations in order to supply food banks.

“Children and adults are going without food now and we must do better,” Schrier said.

Northwest Harvest says the report found a variety of benefits that have helped the food insecurity situation.

“What we’re seeing with enhanced unemployment benefits, with the additional SNAP benefits, and a ramping up of distribution of emergency food — yes, demand is hard to keep up with, but we’re holding our own right now,” Reynolds said.

But, some of those enhanced benefits are set to expire at the end of July.

Northwest Harvest is asking for an expansion of SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) to include more people, especially people of color and undocumented immigrants. The organization is also lobbying for expansions to unemployment benefits provided by the CARES Act, to prevent people from becoming food insecure.