Economic recovery? Not at local food banks

Vikki Warner probably waited too long to get help.

When she finally got in line at the Bellingham Food Bank, her savings were gone, her cupboards were empty and her bills were past due. That was in April 2015, nearly six years after the recession officially ended, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Financial trouble started for the nearly 60-year-old, college-educated mother of four in 2008. She was a manager of Target, but her hours got cut and she eventually left Target for a job at a gas station.

Last winter her hours at the gas station went from 40 a week to 30, causing her to fall behind on bills. Now she’s back to working 40 hours a week but she’s still paying off bills.

“My paycheck doesn’t cover my needs,” Warner said. “By the time I pay rent and power—I don’t have cable, I don’t have extras—I can’t eat.”

Warner isn’t alone. The number of people in Whatcom County who struggle to feed themselves is growing despite falling unemployment. Since 2007, visits to the Bellingham Food Bank have increased more than 80 percent. Even from 2013 to 2014, visits went up by about 7 percent, said Mike Cohen, the Food Bank’s executive director.

“Once the economy started to crank up it didn’t crank up for the people who were visiting us. But prices started to go up again.” Cohen said.

In March, Whatcom County’s unemployment rate was 5.9 percent, the lowest it has been since December 2008. The rate was more than 8 percent as recently as February 2013, according to the state Employment Security Department.

Cohen and others who work in hunger relief think of the surge in people who struggle to feed themselves despite a recovering economy as the “new normal.” Currently about half of the families who use the Bellingham Food Bank have at least one working member, but their jobs may be part-time or pay much less than the jobs they had before the recession, Cohen said.

In 2007, most clients used the Bellingham Food Bank sporadically. A low income family with a health care payment or a car repair bill would show up for a few weeks or a month, get back on their feet and then disappear until the next crisis, Cohen said.

Now, not only has the number of clients increased, but many are showing up more frequently — maybe once a week instead of just at the end of the month, Cohen said.

“Food banks used to think of themselves as emergency food assistance,” he said. “Now we’re seeing more people than we ever saw before and people are using us as a regular part of their lives to get through what continues to be a really challenging time.”

The demographics haven’t changed. Thirty-five percent of people who eat food from the Food Bank are children and 15 percent are seniors, which is roughly the same as 10 years ago, Cohen said. But there are more of each sector. Now, 1,200 families—almost 20 percent of Bellingham households—visit the Food Bank regularly.

Many are like Warner, and wait longer than they should to get help, Cohen said.

Though Warner was surprised at the service and quality of food, she was counting down the weeks—just four more to go—until she could stop using the Food Bank. That’s not because of the hour and a half wait outside but because of the stigma of needing help, she said.

“I still don’t like coming here, because I should be able to make it,” Warner said. “It’s hard to admit that you can’t do it. I suppose that’s a pride thing.”

Food insecurity up across the state and country

Some food banks in Western Washington have doubled or tripled the amount of people they serve since 2007, said Katharine Ryan, public policy director for Food Lifeline, a nonprofit food distribution center.

Some of those food banks have a hard time meeting demand because people think the economy is better and donate less.

“I find it astonishing how many people aren’t aware about how prevalent hunger is. I think hunger is one of those things that can be very invisible,” Ryan said. “There’s so much stigma around talking about it. The people who are experiencing it aren’t willing to tell their story.”

The Bellingham Food Bank has been able to keep up with its growing clientele. The Food Bank gets 35 percent of its budget from governments, and most of the rest comes from individual donations, which have kept pace with client-growth during the recession, Cohen said.

In the same period in which visits have increased by 80 percent, the amount of food the Bellingham Food Bank receives and distributes to a dozen other food banks in Whatcom and San Juan County has increased by 250 percent.

Most of that food comes from Food Lifeline, Northwest Harvest and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Commodity Supplemental Food Program — organizations that provide truckloads of food for free or nearly-free, as long as they have somewhere to put it. During the recession, the Bellingham Food Bank expanded its role as a distribution center, and now gets two semi truck loads of food a week, most of which goes out to its partner food banks.

New building nearly complete

To prepare for its future as a food distribution hub, The Bellingham Food Bank is expanding with a new warehouse—a $2.3 million, 10,000-square-foot building for food storage that should be completed in June.

Ninety percent of the new warehouse space will be dedicated to storing food for the dozen food banks in Whatcom and San Juan counties that the Bellingham Food Bank supplies food to.

It’s harder for rural food banks to get support from Food Lifeline, Northwest Harvest, and other larger hunger relief organizations, because they don’t have warehouse space or forklifts, and it is not worthwhile for those organizations to make the drive to Whatcom County unless they’re delivering whole truckloads of food.

“All those food banks are dealing with the same things we are with a lot less resources,” Cohen said. “Some don’t have any grocery stores to go and pick up the food that would get thrown away like we do.”

Once the new building is finished, the Bellingham Food Bank will have the space to continue collecting food and distributing it to other local food banks for 20 or 30 years, Cohen said.

“We never want to turn away food for Blaine or Sumas or our other partners because we don’t have the space for it,” Cohen said. “I think in three years we’ll be moving more than three million pounds of food a year out to our partners where hunger has grown just as much.”

Oliver Lazenby, associate editor of The Bellingham Business Journal, can be reached at 360-647-8805, Ext. 5052, or


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