Second Harvest’s team in Pasco wanted to try a new way to hand out food, so they made an event on Facebook.

“250 FREE food boxes will be distributed Tuesday, March 24 for anyone in need” the message said. No IDs required. No proof of need. Just show up, and you’ll receive a box.

Vehicles began arriving hours before the 3:30 p.m. pickup. The line grew so long “it started to snarl traffic from the Port of Pasco to King City,” said Jason Clark, the president and CEO of Second Harvest.

They ran out of food in about 40 minutes.

“The economic shock is just so sudden,” Clark said of the coronavirus pandemic. “I expect that we’re going to see a lot more people in food bank lines.”

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As the economic effects of the crisis continue to deepen, Gov. Jay Inslee announced on Tuesday a new statewide fund to raise money for food-assistance programs in Washington. The pandemic has placed tremendous strain on the food-bank system, which rely on volunteers and donations. Now, those programs are working to meet a growing demand with less.

The new state initiative, called WA Food Fund, will provide direct financial assistance to three organizations that supply food to every food bank in Washington: Second Harvest, Food Lifeline and Northwest Harvest. The money will go toward food, materials, and personal protective equipment, as well as delivery and distribution costs.

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The fund is being managed by Philanthropy Northwest, a network of philanthropic organizations that work in the Northwest. It was created to provided one central location for individuals, businesses and organizations to support Washington’s food assistance efforts, according to the governor’s office.

“This will be a response that requires millions of dollars of resources each week to be able to effectively address the food need in communities across Washington,” said Linda Nageotte, CEO at Food Lifeline, which supports more than 300 food assistance agencies in western Washington.

The Station coffee house on Beacon Hill has dedicated space for a food bank, supplied with community donations. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
The Station coffee house on Beacon Hill has dedicated space for a food bank, supplied with community donations. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

In 2019, an estimated 1.12 million people accessed food assistance in Washington state, Nageotte said. The three food bank distributors believe that number could double to more than 2 million people amid the current economic environment, Nageotte said.

“The short-term economic shocks tend to drive people to food banks because that’s accessible,” said Clark, of Second Harvest.

In order for Second Harvest to supply large quantities of fresh food to food banks, it relies heavily on grocery stores to donate food that is still good, but can no longer be sold, a model known as “grocery rescue.” Because this crisis created a sharp rise in consumer demand at grocery stores, “all of a sudden, they don’t have as much to donate,” Clark said.

Last year, Second Harvest received 16 million pounds of food through Grocery Rescue.

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“That has basically collapsed,” Clark said.

Before the crisis, 500 volunteers at Food Lifeline’s warehouse helped sort and inspect donated food from grocery stores every week. Because of social distancing measures, Food Lifeline is hosting fewer of the volunteers it needs to prepare donated grocery products for distribution, Nageotte said.

Northwest Harvest said it’s having to purchase more food. During normal times, the organization would receive a substantial discount, spending “10 to 25 cents on the dollar,” said Jordan Rubin, spokesperson for Northwest Harvest. But demand has surged at supermarkets in recent weeks, because restaurants have closed and shoppers are stockpiling necessities.

“So we’re now competing with the chains and the box stores,” Rubin said, and Northwest Harvest is paying close to regular prices.

The new fund isn’t going to be enough to meet the state’s rising need, which is too great to solve through private and philanthropic donations, Clark said. He views it as a “bridge to a more government-directed response.”

Before this crisis, about 90% of the food Second Harvest distributed to food agencies came from donations with the remaining 10% coming from a federal food assistance program.

“What we’re trying to do is flip that as fast as we can,” Clark said.

To learn more about the WA Food Fund, or to make a donation, visit www.wafoodfund.org.

Seattle Times staff writer Daniel Beekman contributed to this report.

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