Mount Si Food Bank scrambles to make up for funding cuts
November 25, 2011
By Dan Catchpole
Officials at the Mount Si Helping Hand Food Bank are still wondering how the organization will make ends meet next year after unexpectedly losing about $19,000 in federal funding this summer.
The food bank is one of many groups in King County caught off guard by the cut of the Emergency Food and Shelter Program, which is administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA officials changed the formula for distributing the money, and determined that King County wasn’t poor enough to qualify, because its unemployment and poverty rates were not high enough. Last year, the county received $1.2 million of the $4 million that went to Washington.
Like other advocates for the hungry, Heidi Dukich, Mount Si Helping Hand Food Bank’s director, has been trying to find a way to make up for the missing money. The food bank receives about 40 percent of its resources from government programs, 40 percent from individuals and 20 percent from businesses.
It might not seem like much in the overall scheme of things, but it is another hole to patch for the program, which has seen demand go up in recent years while its resources have gone down.
Hungry for resources
“Where’s the food going to come from? And how are we going to get it?” Dukich asked as clients left the food bank’s small building with boxes of food and other necessities.
It is a question that many advocates for the hungry and homeless are asking. Individual donations to food banks are down, but more significant are the decreases in government funding, grants, contributions of surplus foods and corporate donations.
The food bank gets money from North Bend, Snoqualmie and the Snoqualmie Tribe, as well as community groups and churches. It also receives food through Northwest Harvest and Food Lifeline. In all, it gets about 7,000 pounds of food a week.
Mount Si’s food bank gets surplus food from the Valley’s three grocery stores. Food banks in more urban areas are able to draw on more stores. For example, the Issaquah Food & Clothing Bank gets donations from six to 10 stores each week, according to Cori Kauk, the organization’s executive director. The Issaquah food bank serves about as many people as Mount Si’s food bank.
But surplus food donations are decreasing as companies become better about managing their inventory.
Demand is up because people have lost jobs, run out of unemployment insurance or can only find part-time work.
The down economy has also meant cutbacks to public assistance programs. With less government help, hungry people have turned more to private sources like the local food bank.
“I barely get by,” said Nikki, who didn’t want to give her last name.
The Snoqualmie resident lost her job two years ago. Since then she has worked part time, but hasn’t been able to find a full-time job. She has gone through most of her state benefits, and has come to rely more and more on the food bank.
It has become an all-too-common scenario across the region, advocates say.
“In general, support remains strong, but it is not near enough to keep pace with the growth in demand. Unfortunately, one reality is that every cut to a program that supports low- or medium-income households bring more families to our door,” said Robert Coit, director for the Thurston County Food Bank.
So, while the Mount Si Helping Hand Food Bank and other groups are meant to complement public assistance programs, they find more of their clients are relying almost entirely on them for their weekly food supply.
Determined to find the resources
Dukich is determined to find the money needed by the food bank.
“These are people. Every week, we see about 300 children and 150 seniors,” she said. “They’re not numbers.”
So, what happens if the food bank can’t make up for the cut funding?
“We’re not going to let that happen,” Dukich said.
She and the food bank’s volunteers are developing new ways to tap into community support. The organization’s recent fundraising event Night on A Dark Trail brought in $2,000, and Snoqualmie Valley residents generously responded to its Turkey Drive.
“We live in a very generous community,” she said. The key is “providing them opportunities to help out.”
Starving on bread
The food bank doesn’t simply give its clients some cans of food and send them on their way.
It strives to provide its clients with a nutritional diet, which is more expensive but well worth the cost, Dukich said.
“You can have a full belly on bread and pasta, but your body is starving, because it’s not getting the nutrition it needs,” she said.
It offers a rounded diet that includes fruits, vegetables and meat. It also provides important nonfood items, and information to help people stretch their food budgets and eat healthier fare. Once a month, a nutritionist comes in and provides recipes to clients based on what is available that week.
Dukich organized a class to teach clients how to grow their own vegetables, and the food bank provided plant starts and dirt for the handful of people who attended. She expects more will show up for the class as it becomes better established.
The variety of foods available impressed David Womer, a former sous chef at the San Diego Marriott Hotel. Mental health problems put him on the street a year ago.
Womer said he doesn’t have a problem putting together interesting meals with what he buys using food stamps and what he gets at the food bank.
Unlike many places, the Mount Si food bank lets its clients pick and choose among the items that are available.
Dukich is trying to find new resources to meet demand, but with economists predicting a sluggish, limping recovery, the future doesn’t promise to improve soon.
“The future just holds some unknowns we have to plan for,” she said.