Visitors at the Ballard Food Bank can push shopping carts down several aisles as they peruse their options. Shelves display hygiene products, pantry staples and even food for four-legged companions.
Fridges are stocked with meat and dairy and a section of bins that offer fresh fruit and vegetables, which will feature produce grown from the bank’s own on-site garden.
The new grocery-style food bank is Ballard Food Bank’s new permanent home that opened its doors Monday at 1400 N.W. Leary Way, just up the street from its previous location.
At 11,000 square feet, the new site is twice as big and is the first building owned by the organization — allowing staff to not only build up existing services but also broaden their reach and add new community spaces, including a café with items free of charge.
“We’ve talked about having something like this, and after four years it’s here,” said Colleen Martinson, director of development and communications. “This is about neighbors helping neighbors.”
The switch to a grocery store layout and design was intentional, and aimed to help reduce the stigma of receiving food assistance so that people can get what they need with a sense of dignity, Executive Director Jen Muzia said.
Labels on many items, Martinson added, are written in multiple languages, with the understanding that not everyone may be fluent in English. “We want to provide a space that’s super welcoming and inclusive,” she said.
Though the search for a new location was already in the works, the need for a bigger facility became more urgent as the coronavirus pandemic exacerbated existing barriers to food security. Muzia said food and resource deliveries jumped to about 900 people a week, up from the about 120 per week staff and volunteers delivered before the pandemic. Staff had to quickly reevaluate their approach, she said, to make sure they were still safely providing food access to those who had to stay home or are experiencing homelessness.
The organization also saw an increase in people coming in to receive rent assistance. They are currently helping up to 40 households on average each month and have shifted to increasing their efforts to help people before they become homeless, Muzia said.
“I just think about the weight that people must feel right now,” she said, noting that though the eviction moratorium has been extended several times, the burden remains.
The $13.9 million expansion has helped achieve the goal to increase people’s access to resources and offer a space for the community as well, she said.
At the site’s Community Resource Hub, created in partnership with several organizations, there is access to health resources, such as medical checkups and mental health services, as well as social services, including housing connections and transportation passes. The aim is to help people reach a point of self-sufficiency, Muzia said, but to also let them know there are people here for them and that are always they are welcomed.
“You want to help people, so they don’t need a food bank, but you also want to make sure you’re there when people need you,” she said.
The idea for the Kindness Café was conceived before the pandemic with the intention of providing a communal area where the public can congregate. Though the pandemic has limited the way people can interact with one another, Martinson said she is hopeful life will return to normal soon.
“We’re hoping to break down that us-versus-them mentality that can exist if we can all sit here and enjoy the space together,” Martinson said.
Anthony Anderson, director of the café, began working with the Ballard Food Bank as a volunteer in March 2020 when he began working from home. He said he took a “leap of faith” and quit his job at Microsoft last month to manage the café full time
The sense of satisfaction that comes from knowing that even a simple interaction can positively affect someone’s life, he says, is what makes him return day after day.
“There are no economic barriers to coming in and being treated respectfully and feeling welcomed,” he said.
Food bank clients, volunteers and community members can all come in and enjoy the food and maybe find some commonalities with strangers they otherwise wouldn’t have interacted with, he said.
“Food is a thing that bonds us,” Anderson said.
But for now, the café is only offering to-go food.
Staff is also planning for a garden that will expand food options at the café and food bank.
While home deliveries are still available to people, the staff is encouraging people to head to the food bank if they can.
Muzia, who has worked with the Ballard Food Bank for nearly eight years, said there was always a fear they’d get priced out and left unable to meet the community where they are. But owning their building, she said, is giving staff a sense of security that their presence and work is permanent.
The community hub is open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays and Thursdays, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The food bank’s grocery shopping is open 1 to 7 p.m. Mondays and Thursdays, and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays.