Even as the economy recovers, the number of visits to local food banks has increased in recent years, a reflection in part of people’s ongoing challenges in finding full-time work and the rising cost of living in the area.
Michelle Dillon made it all through graduate school eating rice and beans, bananas and other inexpensive food she purchased mainly from grocery outlets.
But several months after graduating with a master’s degree in library and information science and looking without success for a full-time job using that degree, Dillon turned to the Rainier Valley Food Bank to supplement the groceries she buys.
Having access to the food bank, she said, “allows me to eat a lot better than I could on my own.”
Like Dillon, large numbers of people have found themselves turning to food banks in recent years, with usage of food banks surging during the Great Recession.
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But even as the economy recovers and the number of jobs continues to rise, more Americans are relying on food banks and other forms of assistance because of ongoing challenges including long-term unemployment, underemployment and wage stagnation.
In the Seattle area, some food banks are getting more visits now than they did during the recession. At the 27 food pantries in the Seattle Food Committee coalition, the number of visits (including delivery of food to homes) went up from 928,656 in 2007 to 1.1 million in 2009 and to nearly 1.4 million last year.
Food bank workers say their clients tell them they’re working fewer hours or making less than before, while costs for everything from rent to food have gone up. Rising housing and food costs have hit those on low or fixed incomes, such as seniors, particularly hard.
At the Rainier Valley Food Bank, where Dillon goes each Saturday morning, the number of visits to the food bank increased from 93,659 in 2010 — the earliest year for which the food bank has that data — to 130,713 in 2013 and 181,290 last year.
Staff there started noticing more people lining up around the middle of 2013, “and it just didn’t let up,” said Sam Osborne, executive director. “It kept getting higher and higher. We said: ‘Whoa, this is just getting crazy. All through 2014, it just kept climbing.’”
These days, more than 600 people — each representing, on average, a household of four, according to Osborne — go through his food bank each Saturday morning. That’s a number he used to see only around Thanksgiving each year.
Yet donations haven’t kept pace.
Food donations — from nonprofit food distributors Northwest Harvest and Food Lifeline, as well as grocery stores, food processors and individuals — have remained largely flat. Cash donations, however, declined 7 percent from 2013 to last year.
“I think it’s largely due to the perception that because the economy is healthy, food banks don’t need the support of donors as much as a few years ago,” Osborne said.
The food bank had to reduce the amount of food it could give out per person last year.
Feeding America, a nationwide network of food banks, determined that food pantries and soup kitchens last year fed about 46 million people, or about 1 in 7 Americans. That’s about the same number who participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — what used to be called food stamps.
The 46.5 million Americans who received SNAP benefits last year represented a drop from 47.6 million in 2013, but each year before that had seen a rise from the 26.3 million in pre-recession 2007.
Washington state followed a similar pattern, rising each year from 2007, when about 536,000 people received SNAP benefits, to 1.1 million in 2013, before dipping slightly to 1.095 million last year.
“Structural changes in the labor market over the past decade have made it harder for people at the lower ends of the wage distribution to make ends meet,” said Scott Allard, a professor at the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Affairs who studies poverty and social policy. “Families are increasingly relying on food assistance to get by in a way they didn’t 10 years ago. At food pantries, you’ll find more families that are middle class or thought of themselves as middle class.”
While the number of people served by food banks both locally and nationally may show year-to-year fluctuations, “one thing you can be really certain of is that (food assistance) caseloads and food pantry levels haven’t returned to pre-recession levels,” Allard said. “And people who work in that space don’t expect a return to that level. They talk about ‘a new normal.’ ”
Dillon knows all about the “new normal.”
By around 6:30 a.m. on Saturdays, Dillon, 30, is in line at Rainier Valley Food Bank to get her number in order to get into the food bank, which doesn’t open until 9:30.
Dillon, who came to Seattle in 2011 to study for her second master’s degree, now earns $1,200 a month after taking a part-time job as program coordinator at a nonprofit with which she had been volunteering. She also moved from her $1,100-a-month apartment in Lake City to an apartment in Columbia City that she now shares with a roommate, with each paying $740.
“I’d really like a lot of that stigma (of using a food bank) to go away,” said Dillon, who used to volunteer at a food bank when she lived in Lake City. “To be poor enough to need to use a food bank, especially as a person born to privilege in this country, is to be the ultimate dirty secret of the new economy. You can make the ‘right choices’ — for instance, ‘stay in school to prevent a life of burger flipping’ — and still not reap all of the benefits that such choices might have brought 20 years ago.”
The Rainier Valley Food Bank, along with others serving South Seattle and South King County, where poverty in the region has shifted, have seen big increases in clients over the past few years. Many are working, but poor.
“We’re paycheck to paycheck,” said Van Pham, 39, who lives with her two daughters, ages 7 and 14, and her boyfriend in Rainier Valley.
They’re currently relying solely on the income of her boyfriend, who works at an auto-parts store from which Pham was laid off in 2007.
What Pham gets from the Rainier Valley Food Bank, where she also volunteers, “helps bring in food to our table,” she said.
In the South Park neighborhood, Providence Regina House Food and Clothing Bank had to decrease the amount of food it allotted each client in the past year, said Jack Wagstaff, program manager. This month the food bank began limiting its services to only residents of four ZIP codes in the South Park to Des Moines area, allowing it to increase the amount of food each client receives.
On the Eastside, though food bank usage remains higher than pre-recession levels, the numbers have fluctuated more. Recent numbers perhaps reflect an economy that’s recovering.
Hopelink, which has eight food banks in East and North King County, saw the number of visits to its food banks increase from 116,525 in 2007 to 172,322 in 2009, and then drop to 136,293 in 2013. Last year, the food bank logged 148,271 visits.
The organization is in the middle of doing an analysis of its data to better understand those fluctuations, and which clients come in regularly versus those who are “dipping in and out,” said Meghan Atimore, vice president of community services.
The total number of seniors using the food banks has risen over those years — though the agency hasn’t analyzed whether that’s because the population of seniors has gone up over the years or other factors.
Anecdotally, Atimore said, “We’re probably seeing that people who were coming steadily are now coming less frequently.”
Issaquah Food & Clothing Bank — “people are always shocked to hear there’s a food bank here,” said Cori Walters, executive director — has also seen some fluctuations, with a jump of 23 percent in visits from 2012 to 2013, and then a 14 percent drop from 2013 to 2014.
Yet, she added, “we’re still hearing from people who say that when they were able to get into jobs, they weren’t paid as much as they were before or they weren’t working as many hours.”