When news broke last month that the novel coronavirus caused its first death in the Puget Sound region, Rainier Valley Food Bank installed a hand-washing station outside its building.
Then, after Washington Gov. Jay Inslee restricted gatherings of 50 people or more, the food bank stopped allowing clients inside. Instead, it handed out bags of food at the front entrance and limited the number of people it served at one time.
But even those precautionary measures are already feeling out of date, Kara Hunter, development associate at Rainier Valley Food Bank, said last week.
“We’re trying to keep this balance between keeping people safe and keeping people fed,” Hunter said.
In an effort to meet hygiene and social-distancing measures during the outbreak, food banks throughout the Puget Sound region have been forced to make significant changes to their operations, some even shutting down.
Many have beefed up cleaning protocols and closed down their grocery-store models to limit people’s contact with food. They’ve resorted to an older model, packing food into bags and boxes, which has created more work and increased costs. Some providers in King County, like Hopelink, have stopped accepting personal food donations for fear of contamination.
The outbreak has put a tremendous strain on a model that relies heavily on volunteers and donations to stay in operation. At least 10 food-assistance programs surveyed by The Seattle Times in the Puget Sound region reported that they’ve seen a decrease in volunteers and/or food donations.
“Nonprofits in general are seeing a decrease in volunteers,” said Shawna McMahon, executive director of Immanuel Community Services, which operates a food bank and community meal program in South Lake Union. “In the midst of this crisis there are still people who are hungry and need food.”
As the economic impacts of the pandemic begin to unfold, local food-assistance leaders question whether their already-taxed systems will be able to support the influx of need they’re expecting to see.
“We think we’re going to see a big impact for people who are living paycheck to paycheck, who now don’t have those paychecks. … We’re likely going to see that first in food,” said Meghan Altimore, vice president of community services at Hopelink, a service provider in North and East King County.
Last week, 133,464 unemployment insurance claims were filed in Washington state, more than five times higher than in any week during the Great Recession, according to reporting by The Seattle Times.
More than 400,000 workers in the Puget Sound region are in industries facing immediate risk, and an additional 500,000 are in industries facing near-term risk due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to a white paper commissioned by the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.
“We don’t comprehend the scale of the wave that is about to hit our community,” said Rabbi Will Berkovitz, the executive director of Jewish Family Services, a service provider in Seattle, which had to temporarily close its food assistance program until April. “This will be much larger than 2008. This is something we are utterly not prepared for.”
When it comes to supporting Seattle’s most vulnerable, food banks are on the front lines. Several food banks in Seattle said the majority of their clients are elderly, living on fixed incomes, immigrants, refugees or parents working multiple jobs.
Food assistance is often the first place people turn to for help, said Christina Wong, public policy and advocacy director for Northwest Harvest, a statewide food-bank distributor in Washington.
“They are directing their limited incomes across those less flexible costs: housing, health care,” she said. “And they’re skipping meals.”
The Washington State Department of Agriculture is preparing for an increased need in food assistance in the weeks and months to come, said Kim Eads, WSDA’s food assistance program manager. WSDA has applied for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Disaster Family Feeding program, which is designed to increase food supply after a disaster. It’s more commonly used after a hurricane or earthquake, Eads said.
“They’re not used to adjusting to a pandemic,” Eads said of the program.
Before the virus, the USDA’s Emergency Food Assistance Program helped feed 150,000 families in Washington each month, Eads said.
“The request that I put forward to USDA [for the Disaster Family Feeding Program], I multiplied that by four,” Eads said. “And I think that’s just the tip of the iceberg.”
As food banks waited for specific guidance from Public Health – Seattle & King County, many developed their own safety measures by following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s hygiene guidelines and following Inslee’s social-distancing orders.
At the Food Bank at St. Mary’s, they used a surveyor’s tool to spray paint lines on the sidewalk, so that clients waited 6 feet apart. At Chicken Soup Brigade, which distributes premade meals to seniors with compromised health systems, delivery drivers are sanitizing their hands and wearing new rubber gloves for every home delivery. The majority of food banks in the greater Seattle region have continued accepting donations since the COVID-19 outbreak. But others, out of fear of contamination, are turning food donations away. And it’s having costly effects.
Since it stopped accepting food donations March 6, Hopelink is expecting to spend $125,000 in March alone to replace product that would have been donated, which normally makes up 80% of its inventory. Hopelink will spend more than 40% of its annual food budget in March alone. And it expects that to continue.
“As long as we’re being careful with our procedures, then we feel confident that what we are giving out is not a risk to someone,” Altimore said.
Since the outbreak, 61 Washington food banks have either closed, at least temporarily, shifted hours or changed distribution models, according to the Washington State Department of Agriculture.
Bellingham Food Bank is among those that have closed: On its website, the food bank said that despite precautions, it felt that it couldn’t operate safely because “volunteers and those who need food are still having to congregate while at the food bank.”
Rainier Valley Food Bank is trying to remain open, while protecting the health of its clients. It’s currently looking at what it would take to switch its operation, which normally serves 16,000 families a year, to a home-delivery model.
“Sometimes it feels like there’s no right answers right now,” Hunter said.
Of Rainier Valley’s seven-person staff, half are home self-isolating because they’re showing flu-like symptoms, including Hunter, she said. And so far, no one has been able to get tested for COVID-19.
“We’re trying to decide what is the point that we can’t do this any more,” Hunter said.