Seattle Courant

A Run On The Food Banks

By Robin MacPherson
February 14, 2009 10:02PM

"There were 10,000 more visits in 2008, which is a 47 percent increase," said Jake Weber, Director of FamilyWorks Food Bank.

Over on Beacon Hill, Graciela Gonzalez works at the El Centro de la Raza Food Bank, and she said that her food bank decided to add an extra day of operation to meet the increasing demand for food. Despite receiving money from the city, Gonzalez said there have been shortages, particularly when it comes to getting enough protein-rich food. She's worried that if demand keeps going up, her food bank won't be able to keep pace.

Of the 29 food banks in Seattle, 17 receive funding from the city. FamilyWorks gets approximately half of its operating budget from the Human Services Department; the rest comes from fund raising and donations.

In an effort to bolster the city's ability to deal with hunger, the City Council included an additional $1.4 million in the 2009-2010 budget for food banks and meal programs. But even with $3.4 million allocated to fight hunger there is real concern that demand will outgrow existing capacity.

According to a report titled "American Recovery and Reinvestment: The Role of Metro Areas," unemployment in Seattle is expected to go up another two percent, a loss of 32,000 jobs by the end of the year. The report was presented to the United States Conference of Mayors, and Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, last month at the 77th Winter Meeting in Washington, D.C. Nickels is the vice president of the organization of mayors.

What's perhaps even more alarming than the rush on food banks is the increasing reliance on meal programs. Unlike food banks, which typically provide two to three days worth of food to people who have a home and a place to cook; meal programs are for people who don't have that option.

"The need for our program has almost doubled, and our economic ability - our donations - are down about 60 to 80 percent," said Beverly Graham, Director of Operation Sack Lunch.

According to Graham, in January 2008 they served 10,000 meals; this January, she said they served 17,000 meals.

But it's not just more meals, the cost to make those meals has gone up too.

"Last year, when gas was $4 a gallon, our fuels costs were astronomical and so the price of every product also went up," Graham said. "When fuel prices dropped, nothing else dropped. Everything else stayed the same price."

Operation Sack Lunch tries to provide organic food that is high in nutrients, working on the principle that good nutrition is a right, not a privilege. But to stay true to that principle, Graham said they have to stretch their operating dollars, and therefore, the organization has had to expand its purchasing network beyond local areas to get the best prices.

But the reports aren't entirely bleak. Weber said that FamilyWorks' "Yes, We Can" initiative far exceeded expectations. The nation-wide charitable initiative asked citizens to donate $44 or 44 cans of food to celebrate the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States. Weber said, they brought in 4,100 pounds of food and over $12,000 - nearly three times as much as expected.

"The thing is, how do we keep that momentum going?" Weber asked. "So many people are affected by this, and those who gave are now affected by the crisis. I believe we now need to have every single person involved with doing their part to fight hunger."