Food insecurity around the state is at historically high levels, state officials and food providers said Thursday, and they expect the crisis to continue for months to come.

“We know that, while over a half-million Washingtonians have filed for unemployment since March, and we know the number of people facing hunger has doubled since the pandemic, we have likely not seen the worst yet,” Linda Nageotte, CEO of Food Lifeline, said during the news conference. “By the end of this year, potentially one in five Washingtonians could be facing hunger.”

The current numbers are already sobering.

“There has been an enormous crisis this year,” said Katie Rains, food assistance specialist for the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA). “To put it in perspective, in the previous state fiscal year ending in June 2019, 1.12 million Washingtonians sought food assistance from programs across the state. In contrast, the current model shows 2.2 million people are currently food insecure in Washington state.”

The pandemic “more or less turned our food security system on its head,” WSDA Director Derek Sandison said.

“To start with the supply side, the closure of restaurants across America and around the world resulted in 30-40% of the supply chain that served the restaurant and food-service industry to grind to a halt,” Sandison said. “In the meantime, the grocery and retail side of the food chain was hit by waves of panic buying that emptied store shelves, and COVID closures of meatpacking exacerbated the shortages.”

Sandison said that while there was a glut of food on the restaurant side, it wasn’t packaged or labeled in a way that was suitable for consumers.

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“Then on the demand side, a short time after the state closure proclamation was issued [in March], unemployment claims jumped 338% over the previous year and the number of people seeking food at food banks and pantries doubled,” Sandison said.

That was how the crisis started. Sandison said he was informed on April 10 by nongovernment organizations providing food that there was less than a two-week supply of food on hand.

“We immediately began an aggressive food, PPE and box procurement and distribution effort that continues to this day,” Sandison said.

Part of the funding has come from the CARES Act,a $2.2 trillion aid bill passed by Congress earlier this year. But Sandison said more federal aid is needed because he expects heightened demand to continue well into 2021.

Nageotte said about half the people who are coming to Western Washington food distribution locations are “folks who have not needed to turn to the food-bank system before.”

Jason Clark, CEO of Second Harvest, said demand at food banks in Eastern Washington is larger than at any time in his 27-year career.

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“Our partners at the Spokane Regional Health District did a survey at one of our larger distribution events, and of the 785 cars that came through that event, 314 of those families had never been to a food bank before,” he said. “That is the reality we keep seeing.”

The speakers at the Thursday news conference commended the public’s help in volunteering and donating to meet the greater need.

If no more money is forthcoming from Congress, Sandison said, “we’ll find a way to make it work. That’s all I can say. We’ll expect to hear from the state Legislature when they convene in January in terms of additional resources there. But certainly, life would be much simpler if we had an additional round of state support from Congress.”

The bipartisanship that powered earlier aid measures in Congress is all but gone, and the Senate’s failure to pass a scaled-back coronavirus rescue package on Thursday likely ended hopes for more relief before the November election.

Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.

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