University Commons, slated to open later this month, will bring multiple nonprofits under one roof to combat hunger, homelessness and unemployment.
By the time floor manager Dave Reuter arrives for his opening shift at the University District Food Bank, there are usually at least a dozen people lined up outside along Northeast 50th Street. The street is busy and narrow, and the weather is often rainy, but patrons still stand and wait, some of them every day, to get food for themselves and their families.
By the end of the summer, these lines will disappear.
After a three-year, $3 million capital campaign, the food bank will move into a new building on Roosevelt Avenue Northeast that, at 6,000 square feet, is nearly eight times larger than the current food bank.
At the new building, clients will have an indoor waiting area, an extra 2 pounds of food per household each time they visit, and easy access to nonprofits that will operate in the building and share the food bank’s goal of alleviating hunger and homelessness.
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The project, called the University Commons, is one sign of the changing nature of hunger in Seattle and across the nation.
When the University District Food Bank first opened its doors in the 1980s, most of its clients were short-term patrons, supporting themselves during financial emergencies. Joe Gruber, the food bank’s executive director, said many rely on the food bank for years at a time these days.
Such was Reuter’s situation five years ago. After college, he worked for AmeriCorps, a national community-service organization. His salary was lower than his living expenses, so he used food stamps and the food bank.
The 2008 recession as well as the steady rise in Seattle’s cost of living have turned many people into permanent food-bank clients, Gruber said. Reuter said he knows some of them because they have been coming since he was a client himself.
That change prompted the food bank to design its new space as a one-stop shop for services — providing not only meals, but also housing and employment opportunities.
University Commons will house the Low Income Housing Institute along with the food bank, as well as YouthCare and Street Bean Coffee, a nonprofit coffee shop that trains and employs homeless young adults.
The organizations and the food bank will occupy the building’s first floor, with apartments above, managed by YouthCare and the housing institute. Street Bean Coffee will open a store on the ground floor. The roof of the building will become an urban garden where the food bank will grow fresh produce for its shelves.
“[University Commons] is going to set a standard for how these kinds of partnerships can work,” said Street Bean Executive Director Merri O’Brien.
“The food bank, the job training and the subsidized housing all work really well together.”
The food bank also plans to work with the Seattle-King County Coalition on Homelessness to facilitate voter registration and with legal-advocacy organizations to assist in matters like child-custody disputes or bankruptcy filing.
The Commons project has had some complications. The opening date originally was scheduled for the end of June, but that has been pushed back to mid-July while organizers wait for a certificate of occupancy.
The food bank also ended up taking out a $200,000 loan to cover construction costs, Gruber said, because a large portion of the funds raised during the capital campaign was pledged in installments.
But he said he hopes that loan will be paid off by the end of July.
The type of donations the food bank receives is also changing, Gruber said. While people once primarily donated nonperishable canned or boxed goods, today the bulk of the donations, from individuals and grocery stores, are fresh produce and dairy products. The food bank’s new location will have extra freezer space to store them.
And it will be getting more food than before because one of its main donors, Food Lifeline, has expanded its own operation, and will be able to supply twice as much food.
At its new warehouse, Food Lifeline is looking to rescue all the food that is wasted during the production process — whether that’s by farmers growing too much, retailers stocking too much or people buying too much.
According to Mark Coleman, the organization’s director of communications, 35 percent of food produced in the United States ends up in landfills.
Starting this month, Food Lifeline will be able to store up to 100 million pounds of food and increase distribution to close to 300 area food banks and meal suppliers.
“The food was out there,” Coleman said. “We just needed the space to store it.”