In Washington state’s new food warehouse, there’s enough Jif peanut butter to make nearly 3 million sandwiches.
Barilla pasta boxes stretch to the ceiling, 100,000 in all. Large stacks of TreeTop applesauce, pancake mix and canned green beans sit on pallets, like soldiers waiting to be sent into duty.
Since the coronavirus crisis first rocked Washington in March, nonprofits and state agencies working in food assistance have been forced to draw a completely new road map for getting food to people who need it.
The warehouse in Fife is part of that new model. After seeing food banks struggle to meet demand once the pandemic hit and the economy tanked, the Washington state Department of Agriculture (WSDA) began preparing to buy and stockpile tons of food to ward off a shortage in the months ahead.
The new stockpile is driven by two major factors: A nearly doubling in demand for food assistance across the state and a national food supply chain that is bogged down amid an overwhelming surge in demand.
As many as 2.2 million Washingtonians — about 30% of the state’s population — are facing food insecurity, according to Katie Rains, WSDA food policy advisor. That’s more than double the 850,000 state residents who sought help from food assistance programs last November, before the pandemic.
“We’ve been in this very desperate situation starting toward the end of March,” said WSDA Director Derek Sandison. “This [warehouse] is a continuation of our efforts to make sure we have fusions of product that will help us to continue to weather the storm.”
The storm took hold in mid-April, Sandison said during a tour of the warehouse on Friday. That’s when the state’s three main food bank distributors — Food Lifeline, Northwest Harvest and Second Harvest — told the WSDA that based on the spike in requests for food assistance, the organizations had roughly a two-week supply of food for hunger relief.
“We went into panic mode,” Sandison said. “That’s not an exaggeration. … So we jumped in with both feet and started active procurement on our end.”
But as the WSDA was trying to buy as much nonperishable food as it could to increase the state’s emergency reserves, so was everyone else.
Not only was the WSDA competing with other states and large national food-assistance programs, it also faced competition from grocery stores as national supplies of products such as pasta and peanut butter were becoming increasingly hard to come by.
“Peanut butter was a very highly wanted and needed commodity,” said Gary Newte, sourcing and product director for Northwest Harvest. “Peanut butter prices have probably tripled in the last three to four months.”
These high costs are having significant effects on the big food bank distributors’ bottom lines.
“Over a seven-month span during this crisis, we’ll spend more on purchasing food than we have for the previous four years combined,” said Thomas Reynolds, CEO of Northwest Harvest.
And six months into the pandemic and economic crisis, those costs haven’t gone down, Newte said. Many food distributors are still waiting on food they ordered months ago, he said.
“I bought a couple loads of product yesterday that will arrive in October,” Newte added. Most bulk food orders, he said, could take anywhere from six to 12 weeks to arrive.
That’s where the state’s new emergency food reserve comes in.
Since July 1, the WSDA has purchased between 1,200 to 1,300 pallets of food. The space owned and operated by the firm Golden Services can hold up to 2,000 pallets of nonperishable food.
So far, $6.1 million has been spent on 4,000-pallets of food, Rains said. Only about a quarter of the orders have arrived.
Since the crisis, WSDA has received $76.2 million in state and federal emergency funding and has a request for another $13.8 million pending.
But even if the additional funding comes in, Rains said, “this will still only support WSDA’s COVID-emergency-food response through the end of the calendar year 2020.”
With the food reserve in place, rather than having to wait up to three months for a new shipment of pasta to come in, Sandison said the warehouse will be able to supply distributors like Northwest Harvest with the product they need in 24 to 48 hours.
The new food reserve is a cushion against whatever supply chain upheavals or demand spikes lie ahead, Reynolds said.
Reynolds and others worry about an increase in demand with the expiration of enhanced federal unemployment benefits at the end of July. Some food banks are already reporting an increase in visitors, Rains said.
“The need is so high across the state,” Newte said, “that even as we have ebbs and flows, there’s already a need for everything that’s in [that warehouse].”