Food banks statewide struggling to deal with increased visitation

Mitchell Roland, Senior Reporter

As unemployment continues to rise in Washington due to the COVID-19 outbreak, food banks statewide are seeing a drastic increase in visitation.

According to the United States Labor Department, nearly 16 million people have filed for unemployment benefits in the last three weeks. With an estimated 150 million people in the U.S workforce, the unemployment rate has increased by over 10% in Washington.

Jordan Rubin, the communications director for Northwest Harvest, said there are currently over 1.3 million people in Washington who are food insecure. Rubin said a needs analysis determined 1.6 million people in Washington will be food insecure during the height of the pandemic. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, there were 830,000 people food insecure.

Rubin said Northwest Harvest has worked on different plans since February to deal with increased demand and the increase of nearly 800,000 food insecure people in Washington. These numbers are at the high end of what Northwest Harvest was projecting. Rubin said food banks across the entire state are dealing with increased demand.

“That doubling of need is really consistent [across Washington],” Rubin said.

Northwest Harvest is expecting the highest surge of demand to last through the end of summer.

Higher than normal need at Washington food banks is expected through at least the end of the year. Rubin said Northwest Harvest might not have enough food to fit the higher demand.

Rubin cited a lack of surplus food at stores, a lack of food drives and social distancing as reasons for the potential shortage.

“It put food banks all across the state in a very difficult spot,” Rubin said.

Rubin said the simplest way for people to help is to donate money directly to Northwest Harvest.

“We can do a lot more with that cash than an individual can do,” Rubin said.

Patricia Garrison, treasurer of the Allied People Offering Year-Round Outreach (APOYO), said COVID-19 has had a major effect on their food bank.

“The impact has been twofold,” Garrison said.

Garrison said there has been a “dramatic increase” in the number of visitors, including first-time visitors.

 Open two days a week, the food bank typically gets 300 visitors a month. However, Garrison said 75 people visited last Wednesday alone.

“We’ve seen a tremendous increase,” Garrison said. “God only knows what this weekend will be.”

 While the number of people they serve has increased, APOYO has had to serve them with less volunteers and resources.

Garrison said due to the virus, the foodbank restricted how many volunteers could help “because [their] space is so small”.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Garrison said she was worried the food bank would have to close down altogether.

 Since her and her husband are in high-risk categories for the virus, Garrison said she was worried no one could run it. However, three food bank visitors started volunteering to keep the doors open.

“Our clients stepped up,” Garrison said. “We thought we were going to have to shut down.”

The food bank typically relies on food from Northwest Harvest and donations from the community so they can shop for food. However, since she and her husband are in high-risk categories, they can’t shop.

Since they’re unable to shop for food, APOYO is relying solely on food from Northwest Harvest to remain open. While they have had enough so far, there have been times where they nearly run out. Garrison said the challenges APOYO are facing are not unique to them and recommends people donate to Northwest Harvest to support local food banks.

“I think all food banks are kind of struggling right now,” Garrison said.

Even with the increase in visitors, APOYO will soon be forced to shut its doors. CWU announced in January that APOYO’s lease will not be renewed after it expires at the end of June.

“The only reason we can exist is this space on campus,” Garrison said.

Garrison said she has started a Change.org petition to try to convince CWU to renew their lease. Currently, the petition has 448 signatures in five days.