Over the past 18 months, the pandemic has shuttered businesses. People lost work, and many families have struggled to pay for food, housing and utilities. At food banks, we saw our lines grow as many of our neighbors turned to us for the first time.
Yet, needing assistance is not new. Before COVID-19, our clients always included a diverse mix of folks — retirees living on fixed incomes, parents juggling kids and multiple jobs, working-class people overwhelmed by skyrocketing costs of living.
Asking for assistance is hard, as it can be met with judgment in our society. After the pandemic destroyed so much for so many, I’ve noticed a greater sense of empathy and understanding that — in some ways — has made it easier to ask for help. This is in sharp contrast to pre-COVID times, when showing this kind of vulnerability often carried a palpable shame.
As the country reopens and we transition out of the pandemic, one of its enduring lessons should be that asking for help is normal — a sign of strength, hope and grit — and we must give ourselves and others grace during times when help is needed. It is imperative that we also bolster the institutions and networks that allow people to get the assistance they need.
Safety nets like nonprofits, government assistance programs and social service organizations play a critical role in our communities. All of us have a friend or relative who has used a safety-net program, whether we know it or not. The Urban Institute estimates that one in five Americans is served by at least one program like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Special Supplemental Nutrition Program from Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). This statistic doesn’t include the many more people served by nonprofit organizations like food banks.
Yet there is a persistent stigma surrounding safety-net programs that is often linked to “laziness” or “carelessness” — the maligned “Welfare Queen” of the Reagan era. This is not what we see at Ballard Food Bank. The folks who seek assistance look no different than my family or yours. Any one of us could experience a crisis — a layoff, sick family member, depression, addiction — that forces us to ask for help.
The safety net is an essential part of our society’s fabric that helps our communities thrive. When it’s strong, equitable and easily accessible to all, it can directly impact how our youth, seniors, families and individuals access programs and opportunities. If we invest in our safety net and resource it accordingly, there is real opportunity for food banks and other service organizations to address the root causes of hunger and poverty.
One way to strengthen the safety net: Move away from fragmented service models and toward a more holistic response to people’s needs. We took a step in this direction at Ballard Food Bank with the launch of our Community Resource Hub. Since 2016, we’ve brought in 19 partners to help clients along their journey to self-sufficiency with services ranging from mental-health care to health-insurance navigation to homelessness services. Like many nonprofits, we are constantly looking to understand the needs of our community and how we can work together to become part of a long-term solution to poverty.
When it comes to hunger, we cannot stop at food security — we must strive for food sovereignty. Nutritious food is a basic human right, but communities are too often told what and how they should eat. This is where we see the upstream and pervasive issues of racism, culturalism and classism rear their ugly heads and prevent folks from addressing their own needs. At our food bank, we are learning to listen to the diverse communities we serve and respond in ways that are culturally sensitive, center human dignity and prevent harm rather than perpetuate it.
Even as we start to recover from the pandemic, we need to recognize that recovery will not look the same for everyone. It will take all of us to invest in our communities so that people can experience an equitable recovery. In the coming months, we can carry this boost of pandemic-inspired empathy into the future. Let’s use it to change how we treat our neighbors and ourselves.