Long before the current COVID-19 health and economic crisis hit home, this country already was facing some very difficult truths. Despite a booming economy, the stock market hitting record highs and the lowest unemployment numbers of my lifetime, things were anything but ideal for the one in eight Washingtonians who struggled to afford the most essential of needs.
Thousands of young adults face crushing school debt. Wages have not kept up with the explosive cost of living. Health-care costs continue to grow. And we all know about the lack of affordable housing that has led to record numbers of unsheltered populations across the state. These issues have only been magnified during this pandemic.
Even worse, these hardships disproportionately hit our most vulnerable neighbors — seniors, children and single-mother-led households. Communities of color, rural populations, tribal communities and immigrant populations bear far more of these painful burdens.
Furthermore, it is often those with the loudest and best-funded voices who have their needs taken care of first, while those at the bottom of the economic ladder are not only the last to be cared for — but will be the last to recover.
As CEO of Northwest Harvest, Washington’s statewide hunger-relief agency, each day I see the effects of a society that all too often puts aside the basic principles of equity and humanity — leading to increased poverty and hunger.
Our current crisis — a perfect storm of health pandemic and resulting economic breakdown — has increased hunger and financial insecurity in Washington beyond anyone’s previous imagination. In a change that seemingly happened overnight, Washington’s food insecurity numbers nearly doubled from 850,000 residents to 1.6 million — 400,000 of those being children. Many are turning to food banks in their time of need — rapidly overwhelming an emergency-food system originally meant to provide short-term assistance during even the best of times.
Food-bank partners from around the state are reporting increases in need, ranging anywhere from 30% higher than normal to three times what their lines averaged before the pandemic. But food-bank lines don’t fully reflect the extent of need. Many people now experiencing food insecurity aren’t able to get to their food bank. This includes seniors and people with serious health conditions who are homebound, immigrant communities citing fear of the public-charge test if they ask for assistance of any kind and people relying on public transit, which is running on limited schedules with decreased passenger capacity.
While many of these visitors are no stranger to the food banking system, others have never been to, nor ever expected to visit, a food bank before. Parents who were already financially stretched by high costs of living and low wages have lost their jobs in record numbers. Restaurant, hospitality and retail workers have now missed two months of paychecks. The list only grows.
Additionally, due to the massive disruption in our food-supply chain, the overall quantity of donated food began decreasing just as the need started to spike. The situation became so dire that Gov. Jay Inslee launched the WA Food Fund, a statewide campaign coordinated with Philanthropy Northwest and the state’s three leading hunger-relief organizations, including Northwest Harvest. This fund allows us to take donors’ contributions and smartly purchase food in large quantities. This food is being distributed in an equitable way across Washington that addresses the needs of communities most affected by this crisis. Emergency food boxes are being distributed at local food pantries in every county of the state and in partnership with community organizations working to secure food for those who cannot access their local food pantry, whether due to limited mobility, travel restrictions, working hours as essential employees or illness.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we have joined other social-service providers, leading corporations and public officials in the common refrain: We are all in this together. We are in this together with all those whose disparate back stories are now unified in the life-disrupting experience of hunger. We are in this together in our crisis response and recovery efforts. We have an opportunity to join forces with those who are suffering and those in a position to help rebuild a more equitable Washington. So, when we say we are in this crisis together, let’s mean it. Your support of the WA Food Fund can be one critical step toward that vision. Your support is putting food on tables today so we can all work on building a better Washington together.
For information on the WA Food Fund, please visit philanthropynw.org/wa-food-fund.