Food bank victim of own success

Food bank usage statewide was down 3 percent last year. Unfortunately, the Thurston County Food Bank is bucking that trend.

From 2004 to 2006, the Thurston County Food Bank saw a 41 percent increase in the number of households served and a 61 percent increase in the number of clients, according to Robert Coit, executive director.

In a way, the Food Bank is a victim of its own success - a success that can and should be used as a model around the state.

The Food Bank uses a client survey to tailor its services. For example, two years ago, many of the 800 clients who completed the survey said that they were having trouble getting to the Food Bank during its normal downtown distribution hours - from 1-3 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday. About a third of the clients who use the Food Bank are employed - or, more appropriately, underemployed - and they said they could not take time away from work to pick up a bag of groceries to see their family through to the next paycheck.

The Food Bank responded to that challenge by opening 10 satellite food banks in South Sound. Two are at low-income apartment complexes where, for example, a single mother can pick up groceries after work at the same time she collects her son or daughter from the after-school program. Two other satellite food banks are at senior centers where the elderly can get help carrying their bag of groceries to their car. With the satellites, the Food Bank can distribute food six days a week, including three evenings.

"We're breaking down the barriers that prevented clients from using our services, and as a result our numbers are up - way up," Coit told The Olympian's editorial board.

He cited another example of responding to clients' needs.

The 2005 survey found a large percentage of clients asking for additional protein items. In partnership with Food Lifeline, the Food Bank developed a program whereby instead of throwing away meat on its expiration date, grocers toss the meat into a freezer and a Food Bank driver collects it in a refrigerated truck and rushes it to the Food Bank freezer. Clients now get pork chops, roasts, hamburger, hot dogs and other protein on occasion.

Likewise, Red Lobster, Pizza Hut and Olive Garden restaurants have teamed up with the Food Bank to provide surplus food including shellfish and soup.

What an outstanding partnership. This community owes a debt of gratitude to the restaurants and grocery stores participating in these programs. We encourage others to follow their lead and help the Food Bank meet its mission of ending hunger in Thurston County.

The simple truth is, the federal commodity program is terribly insufficient. There are months when there are no commodities to distribute and many months where just three cans of vegetables or fruit are offered to each family.

Three cans! In a wealthy nation like this, that's an outrage. Every time Congress talks about a tax cut, those lawmakers should have to visit a food bank and look into the eyes of those standing in line. "These are real people with real needs," said Rodger Johnson, president of the Food Bank board of directors.

The truth be told, feeding the hungry falls on the shoulders of community residents. And Coit admits, "August is a really tough time for us."

In January after the high school students' food drive and food collections during the holiday season, the Food Bank routinely has $300,000 in inventory. In a typical August, that has dwindled to $90,000. This year with the increasing number of clients, the inventory of food has hit $50,000, Coit said.

The Thurston County Food Bank is fortunate that, thanks to an anonymous donor, it owns its own 12,000-square-foot warehouse and distribution office. "You can't give me too much food, I can store it all," Coit said with a laugh.

The Food Bank's greatest asset, he said, is the core group of 200 volunteers who spend part of each month helping to feed their hungry neighbors.

The Food Bank philosophy of "neighbor helping neighbor" is the core of the nonprofit's success. It truly is a community asset that merits community support.