For as long as Manuel Villaseca has lived in the Seattle area, he’s always had work.
From restaurants to supermarkets, even a teriyaki place, he’s mainly worked in food.
“Before the pandemic, it was easy,” Villaseca said of finding employment.
But four months ago, he lost his job at a grocery store after it changed ownership. And on a cold, overcast December afternoon, two days before the new year, he drove 45 minutes from his home in Tukwila to the Ballard Food Bank with his wife and two friends. He had heard that they had a lot of good food to offer.
“This is our first time coming,” he said, from the driver’s seat of his vehicle as he waited in a slow drive-thru pickup line.
Since the start of the coronavirus crisis, many organizations that provide free food across Washington have seen demand nearly double. At the beginning of April, cars lined up at one distribution site hours before it opened only to find the entire supply depleted in under an hour.
More than nine months in, many families, like Villaseca’s, are still having to turn to food banks for the first time.
While unemployment in the state has started to drop, demand for food assistance has not. Instead, over the last three months, many food programs have seen demand spike a second time after the first major spike in May.
“Families are truly hanging on by the skin of their teeth,” said Katie Rains, Washington state Department of Agriculture food policy adviser.
Congress recently passed a stimulus bill that includes $600 stimulus checks. A new push, however, to increase that amount to $2,000 recently stalled in the Senate.
At the White Center Food Bank in South King County, the holiday season is always the busiest time of the year, pandemic or no pandemic, said Carmen Smith, associate executive director of the organization. In Smith’s four years working at the food bank — and even looking further back in the program’s history — there’s never been a busier holiday season, she said.
“Holidays are a time of celebration, especially for parents wanting to provide for their kids,” Smith said. “I think it just makes families have to stretch a little harder in their budget.”
Customers at the White Center Food Bank, in addition to three regular food pickups offered a month, were able to receive an extra holiday distribution in November and December that included baking staples such as flour and sugar, as well as items like cornhusks and fish sauce, chili peppers and vermicelli noodles. Over 75% of White Center’s customers identify as people of color, and within that 50% are immigrants or refugees, Smith said, a population that has been disproportionately affected by this crisis with higher jobless rates and less government safety nets to fall back on.
Following Gov. Jay Inslee’s announcement of new restrictions in mid-November to combat rising COVID-19 cases, including the closure of gyms and indoor dining, White Center Food Bank started seeing its numbers climb again, Smith said.
In addition to White Center, other food-assistance providers in South King County are reporting high spikes, said Linda Nageotte, president and CEO of Food Lifeline, which helps to supply free-food programs in Western Washington. As of mid-November, White Center Food Bank had served 935 new families last year — way above average.
The past nine months of the pandemic have required every level in the food-distribution chain to rethink the traditional methods of getting food to people who need it. Many food banks have started or ramped up their home-delivery programs. Most requirements for accessing food, like having an ID or living in a certain ZIP code, have been lifted. Four hundred members of the Washington National Guard are still deployed across eight counties to assist in food distribution. For the first time in its history, the state Department of Agriculture has had to start purchasing truckloads of food to help plug holes in the food-assistance supply chain.
The consulting firm McKinsey & Company worked with Northwest Harvest, a food bank supplier for the state, at the start of the crisis to create a model for anticipating need throughout 2020. They used “unemployment shock” — the number of new people who would be out of work as a result of the pandemic and the stay-home directives — to estimate that between 1.6 million and 2.2 million Washingtonians, almost one-third of the state, would lack the financial resources to acquire all of the food they need, said Rains, the food policy adviser. For comparison, in November 2019, 850,000 people living in Washington visited a food bank or food-assistance program.
So far, McKinsey’s model has proven in-line with real-time demand, said Thomas Reynolds, chief executive officer of Northwest Harvest.
Heading into 2021, there’s now “the exhaustion of assets and that’s the thing that we really have no sophisticated and meaningful way to monitor,” Rains said.
People leading hunger relief efforts are also concerned where funding will come from in the new year to support the state Department of Agriculture’s emergency food buying response. For example, the department received more than $59 million in CARES Act funding through state distribution to purchase emergency food — but all of that money had to be spent by Dec. 30.
Fully understanding the need for food assistance across the state is becoming harder and harder, Rains explained, as the pandemic drags on. Another study by the University of Washington and Washington State University is helping to add more nuance to show how Washingtonians are currently faring. The survey, WAFood Security Survey, is currently in its second wave of data collection and anyone can complete it. Based on the study’s first round of data collection in June, 30% of Washington households have experienced a lack of food since the implementation of the state’s first stay-at-home order. Of those households, 59% had children living in the home.
“One of the many complexities that the hunger relief community is dealing with … is that there’s losing your job and then there’s voluntary workforce reduction,” Rains said.
As Seattle Public Schools and other school districts have switched to online learning this school year, many parents have had to reduce their workload or step away from work altogether in order to support their families.
“It’s voluntary, but kind of not,” Rains said. Folks who are voluntarily reducing their workload don’t qualify for unemployment benefits, she added. In addition, many families have drawn from their savings, sold off assets as well as leaned on friends, religious groups or social networks for help.
Measuring whether a family has enough food is like a weather vane for measuring the health and economic prosperity of a community, explained Reynolds, with Northwest Harvest.
“When food insecurity rates go up, it means that people are stretching their dollars to the very limit and are on the brink of economic crisis,” Reynolds said.
Jennifer Muzia, executive director of the Ballard Food Bank, said that if people are being forced to choose between what bills they can pay, don’t let food be a concern.
“This is a resource we’ve always had in our community, and now it’s one of the most critical things,” she said.
Sitting in line at the Ballard Food Bank, Villaseca said if he only had to take care of himself, he might move back to his hometown in Mexico. But he has four daughters and a wife and his oldest is in college to become a doctor.
He’s never been out of work like this before, he said, especially around the holidays. For the first time, he wasn’t able to buy his kids presents for Christmas.
But thankfully, he said, they’re still together.