The Auburn Food Bank’s parking lot and street have been filled every Wednesday with DoorDash cars poised to deliver boxes of food to hungry families. In mid-June, the 225 families on the delivery list received bacon and ground chicken, a bag of potatoes, and preservable items such as Toasty O’s Cereal, rice and pasta.
At the end of the delivery rush in the early afternoon, empty boxes of diapers and packaged items were strewn by the entrance as staff and volunteers organized food in preparation for next week’s packaging. Inside, behind racks of carefully organized food items and toiletries, four volunteers hurriedly prepared weekend food sacks for children that contained macaroni and cheese packs, tuna fish, vienna sausage, oatmeal and a fruit cup. It would take them over two hours to fill sacks for 420 students, which had increased from 230 prior to the pandemic.
While life has returned to normal for many people as 70% of King County’s population has been vaccinated against COVID-19, food insecurity — defined as limited or uncertain access to adequate food — was exacerbated by the pandemic and remains a reality for low-income residents. Hunger before and during the pandemic was most prevalent in South Seattle and South King County, where the greatest concentration of low-income, Black, Indigenous and people of color reside, according to a recent Washington state food survey by the University of Washington and Washington State University.
The data shows a spike in the need for food assistance. Throughout King County, households receiving basic food assistance increased by 19% between January 2020 and April 2021, according to Public Health – Seattle & King County data. ZIP code 98002 in Auburn had the highest rate of households in the county, 36.4%, that were enrolled in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
Food bank staff and public health officials predict it will take households several years to recover from food insecurity made worse by the economic instability of the pandemic. As federally funded programs for economic recovery draw to a close, experts say more support is needed for families to gain access to fresh and healthy food.
“Food insecurity is real,” said Elizabeth Kimball, manager for the Healthy Eating Active Living program at Public Health – Seattle & King County. “It’s happening to your own neighbors and it’s invisible for the most part.”
A Washington state food survey released last October looked at economic insecurity and food access in King County, and found that of the 30% of the 861 respondents without access to food, 57% of those households had children. Respondents also cited increased food costs and reduced safety while food shopping as barriers in accessing food.
The study conducted between June 18 and July 31, 2020, showed that 59% of respondents whose income was less than $15,000 reported food insecurity, compared to 11% of people who made between $75,000 to $149,999. People who earned a graduate degree were least likely to report food insecurity at 11%, compared to nearly 50% of respondents without a college degree. Respondents of color were over 1.5 times more likely to report food insecurity than their white counterparts.
The report also found that the number of respondents who received federal food benefits including SNAP and School Meals, and Women, Infants and Children (WIC) decreased during the pandemic, while reliance on mobile food programs, food banks, city grocery vouchers and summer school meals was on the rise.
Debbie Christian, the executive director of Auburn Food Bank, said that the demand for food at her agency generally remained consistent before and during the pandemic. What has increased over the past year is the number of people who receive home deliveries, which rose from 40 people before the pandemic to 225 families now. Started last July, The United Way-funded food delivery program with DoorDash and participating food banks will end in December.
The food bank has had to step up in other ways. Demand for a financial-assistance program, where the food bank gives away $4,000 a month in total to help people pay for part of their rent or utilities, increased by 50% during the pandemic, Christian added. Additionally, the food bank partnered with United Way and other local food banks to roll out culturally relevant food boxes that include tortillas and Mexican sour cream to be delivered to Latino families.
“There’s always been a need for things like this, but it’s not necessarily been shared (publicly),” Christian said. “Now there’s more of an opportunity to say ‘hey, I need that.'”
In nearby Federal Way, the senior center’s food bank provided food for over 9,000 households and 37,000 individuals — a 50% increase from 2019, said Federal Way Senior Center’s executive director Shelley Puariea.
Some people found themselves using food banks for the first time during the pandemic. That was the case for Kay, who asked that her last name be omitted, a 71-year-old Auburn resident and botany instructor whose classes were canceled during the pandemic. When her husband lost his job in December, she didn’t have enough money to buy food for the first time in her life.
“We had gone from a position of being able to help people,” Kay said, “and that turned to us being in a position of needing help.”
Her husband was initially against using the food bank, but as they grew deeper in debt, Kay applied to use the Auburn Food Bank’s services at the beginning of the year. Everyone at the food bank was welcoming and generous, she said.
“It took some of the stigma and embarrassment out of it for me. It was very humbling to go to the food bank for the first time,” she said.
Overall, the city of Auburn has ramped up food assistance programs. The Auburn Food Bank received a $30,000 per year grant from the city for 2021 and 2022 to address hunger during the pandemic. Sound Generations’ Meals on Wheels, which delivers meals to older adults and people with disabilities in King County, also received $12,500 from Auburn’s general fund this year and next. Meals on Wheels is now delivering to about 65 clients every week, up 10 from last summer, according to Auburn spokesperson Kalyn Brady. The program delivered 3,312 frozen meals in April and 2,993 in May, Brady added.
Additionally, YMCA and the King County Housing Authority were awarded $75,000 in 2021 through a federal relief funds’ Community Development Block Grant to create a program that delivers meals to low-income seniors who experienced barriers in accessing food during the pandemic.
Over the past year, Public Health has received about $10 million in total in federal relief funding for food assistance programs, which was used to distribute food vouchers worth up to $400 per household through community-based organizations. Over $2.5 million was awarded to organizations to purchase culturally relevant foods from ethnic markets and farms for their clients last summer. Another round of funding will go out this summer, but Kimball said Public Health has no plans to continue the food assistance program once the money runs out.
Public Health data shows that the highest percentage of people in the county on SNAP benefits reside in a part of Auburn that had a disproportionately higher rate of enrollment compared to other parts of the county prior to the pandemic. However, the use of SNAP benefits had a greater increase during the pandemic in Snoqualmie’s ZIP code 98065, for reasons unknown to Kimball.
“That might show the most dramatic change in the number of new people experiencing food insecurity, but at Public Health what we really look at are the disparities within a population,” Kimball said. “If you look at King County as a whole, you’ll notice that areas of South King County and within communities of color, low-income, continue to experience food insecurity at the highest rate before and after COVID.”
There are currently no studies that show the impact of stimulus money on hunger in King County. Kimball said that while she has heard that individual families were helped by COVID-19 relief funds, the data shows that overall food insecurity remains higher than prior to the pandemic.
Due to the pandemic’s severity, Kimball said she does not expect a downward slope in food insecurity any time soon. For comparison, the spike in people who enrolled in SNAP and used food banks during the 2008 financial crisis did not decline for several years.
The residual effects of food insecurity during the pandemic may pose long-term health consequences, particularly on developing children, said Kimball.
“The programs that we have in place for emergency food systems are not nearly enough to cover the amount of need,” Kimball said.
She thinks the best approach to alleviating food access problems is expanding eligibility and increasing the benefits for SNAP and continuing programs such as the pandemic EBT, which allows people to buy food at their convenience, instead of needing to visit a food bank during a certain time.
Kay from Auburn said it would be helpful if the city provided gift certificates to grocery stores so she could buy fresh produce, which she can’t get from the food bank.
She and her husband still haven’t returned to work. Kay expects that she’ll continue frequenting the food bank, since she said her application for SNAP benefits has been denied because she does not qualify for it. Her husband receives unemployment benefits, but it’s a small fraction of what they were previously making.
Support from church, friends and the food bank has helped Kay weather the past six months. Still, they’ve incurred a large amount of debt to meet their basic needs.
“It’s a very deep hole to try to dig ourselves out of,” Kay said.