Before Robin Rudy became the executive director of the Tenino Food Bank, she was a school bus driver. It’s a position that gave her a unique perspective into the lives and homes of local families.
Rudy remembers one morning when a young student got on the bus holding a piece of toast that had been burned so bad that she refers to it as “dead.”
“That’s when I saw that kids were getting on the bus with no breakfast. … Moms are not out of bed yet, and there’s no dad in the house,” Rudy said.
That knowledge did not sit well with Rudy, and soon she realized that she was called to do something about it. For that particular problem, Rudy helped to institute the popular, and free, before-school breakfast program for Tenino School District students.
That program is just one of many efforts Rudy has spearheaded in her 34 years running the Tenino Community Service Center and accompanying food bank.
“Older people and kids need food. That’s why I started,” Rudy said.
Over the past 34 years, Rudy said she has seen the demand for the food bank’s services increase. She believes it is a direct correlation to the state of the economy and job market.
“Most of them are not doing well financially,” said Rudy, who estimates that the the food bank serves about 35 families per day. “We get new clients every time we open the door.”
The work is both fulfilling and exhausting to Rudy — especially with a skeleton crew of four for the Community Service Center.
One of the volunteers is a student who rides his bike along local trails to get to work at the food bank. Rudy said what the food bank needs most of all is a fresh crop of volunteers.
Specifically, Rudy says she needs a delivery truck driver with a clean driving record, as well as a delivery assistant capable of lifting heavy items.
“We used to have a lot of volunteers, but it seems like that well ran dry,” she said.
The food bank always needs food as well, Rudy added, especially during the fall food drive.
The food bank does receive a lot of donations of goods already. Northwest Harvest donates a large shipment of produce every month and the rest of the nutritional gaps are filled with government commodities or by purchasing the goods outright with cash donations.
“We have fresh produce every time we open,” she said.
Barbara Sarhan, a former tax collector for the Internal Revenue Service, is Rudy’s primary volunteer helper at the food bank.
“I had time on my hands and there was a need,” Sarhan said.
Although she helps with food deliveries, Sarhan said she is best suited for the social service aspect of the job. She prefers to call the operation “Tenino Food Bank Plus,” because of the additional services that she and Rudy make an effort to provide or connect those in need to: obtaining access to a doctor, signing up for benefits and making a disability claim.
“There are services available, but a lot of times they can’t figure it out,” Sarhan said. “It is a skill. It’s the ability to follow through and finish one step at a time.”
With school out for the summer, Rudy is concerned about children getting fed properly. She said 60 percent of Tenino students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, but she has had no luck implementing a steady summer meal program for schoolchildren.
The main challenge is the rural school district population. Even if Rudy and Sarhan put the food out each day, there is no way for most students to get to it without the school bus.
Rudy says the problem of childhood hunger is especially prevalent at the elementary-school level.
“Those are the kids that I really want to help,” said Rudy.
The personal stories are what motivate her to keep working, she said.
“Eliminate hunger wherever possible. That’s my mission. It’s why I get up in the morning.”