Loretta Brown spent 32 years as a teacher and many years as a retiree without thinking much about food banks.
“I didn’t even know where they were located,” Brown said.
That changed recently, the South Seattle resident said, as her supermarket bills and other costs began to soar. Now she counts on the free groceries she picks up at Rainier Valley Food Bank, which she visited last week.
“Food prices have gone up, and gas prices,” said Brown, 74, hauling a bag stuffed with items like bread, corn on the cob and leafy greens, along with bananas for her grandson. “Everything has gone up.”
Flooded in 2020 by people who lost work during COVID-19 shutdowns, food banks in the Seattle area and across the country are absorbing another wave of need this year. Employment rates have rebounded, but various government-funded relief programs have expired, leaving households with modest incomes struggling to cope with historic inflation.
“This is going to be a long haul,” said Ryan Scott, chief development officer at Food Lifeline, objecting to the “false narrative” that the economy has recovered when “quite the opposite is true” for many people.
Weekly applications for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, also known as food stamps, which crested statewide in 2020 and then fell in 2021, have increased again in 2022. Locally, the need is most acute in South Seattle and South King County, where more than 20% of households in multiple ZIP codes use food stamps.
Auburn Food Bank served nearly 1,900 households this January to April, down from 2,300 over the same months in 2020 but up from 1,600 in 2021, said executive director Debbie Christian. “Because gas prices are so high, people are having more trouble paying for food,” she said. “They’re using their money for gas so they can get to work.”
Tukwila Food Pantry served under 300 households weekly pre-COVID, maxed out at 2,000 as the pandemic raged and is now serving 1,000. “For us, things never returned to normal,” said Benton Coblentz, the pantry’s board chair.
Price pangs will play a role in 2022’s state and congressional elections, as voters consider who to trust to mitigate the issue and as advocates make the case for systemic changes to address poverty. Even before COVID, about 10% of Washington households were considered “food insecure.”
Food banks are trying to keep up with a “conveyor belt” of challenges, said Gloria Hatcher-Mays, executive director at Rainier Valley Food Bank. As soon as one crisis is resolved, she said, another seems to appear.
When COVID hit, Rainier Valley Food Bank pivoted, enlisting an air traffic controller to create a new, volunteer-powered home-delivery model. It succeeded, reaching 1,200 households weekly at one point.
The work was unsustainable in the food bank’s cramped longtime base near Columbia City, so the nonprofit scraped together enough money to buy a larger building in Rainier Beach and moved last November.
Hatcher-Mays hoped to resume in-person service quietly this spring, allowing clients to “shop” indoors just once a week. But 180 people showed up right away, queued in the parking lot behind the food bank.
Inflation is up more than 8% from last year (per the Consumer Price Index, which includes categories like food, gas and rent), outpacing job and wage gains for many workers, said Scott, from Food Lifeline, which supplies about 350 food banks and other partners in Washington.
Meanwhile, COVID programs that buoyed families in 2020 and 2021, like expanded unemployment benefits, federal stimulus checks and enhanced monthly child tax credit payments, have stopped. Supermarket vouchers and cash payments that Seattle provided are no longer available.
Emergency allotments for people using food stamps could expire soon, and the baby formula shortage is exacerbating the pain, as parents spend extra money on gas to search store to store. Rainier Valley Food Bank had no formula last week, and other food banks had limited options.
Inflation is putting pressure on people with fixed incomes, like Brown. Milk costs more now, she said. Meat and produce, too. For some clients, the prices are compounding other obstacles. Harry Kinoshita lost work in 2020 and then had a stroke. His wife has a job but they’re behind on rent, and Kinoshita, 56, a construction worker, recently sold some of his tools for cash, he said.
Rainier Valley Food Bank is a bright spot, said Kinoshita, delighted that mangos were available last week. The organization has added resources, including showers and outreach for people experiencing homelessness on certain days, and is raising funds to renovate its new building, a former funeral home.
“We want to be a hub for the community,” said operations director Karey Fey, noting that many clients become volunteers.
About a dozen people worked quickly last Friday to prep the food bank for in-person service, stacking canned salmon and opening paper bags.
LaTonya Ausler would like to help, she said — because the food bank augments what she can afford on her own (like instant oatmeal), and because, “from the first time I came … I felt connection.” Her mother’s funeral was held in the building years ago, she said.
Released from the hospital in March, Ausler, 66, didn’t know “how I was going to land.” The food bank has been “like a parachute,” she said.
Northwest Harvest supplies about 375 food banks and other partners in Washington. Among 183 that sent reports this month, only six said they were less busy than a year ago, CEO Thomas Reynolds said.
And inflation is squeezing hunger-relief organizations from multiple angles, driving up demand while boosting costs for the nonprofits, which buy items to supplement contributions from supermarkets and farms.
Northwest Harvest is paying $2.46 per pound for chicken thighs this year, up from $0.99 last year, and $1.27 per pound for broccoli crowns, up from $1.09.
Some organizations have also seen their cash donations dip. “As the communities we serve tighten their belts, our donors are needing to do that, as well,” said Coblentz, from Tukwila Food Pantry.
Federal and state spending on food aid, which peaked at $73 million for Washington in 2020, dropped to $62 million this year. The Legislature has authorized spending increases through 2023 but the federal government is pulling back, according to estimates shared by the Washington State Department of Agriculture. Seattle has budgeted $7 million for food banks this year, down from $11 million in 2020, according to City Hall.
Lasting investments are necessary, said Reynolds from Northwest Harvest. Interventions like enhanced child tax credit payments helped huge numbers of people and should be reestablished, added Misha Werschkul, executive director at the Washington State Budget and Policy Center, a progressive think tank. From December 2020 to April 2021, food insufficiency declined more than 40%, according to one analysis.
Republicans were rebuffed this winter when they sought to suspend Washington’s gas tax, citing similar moves in other states. Werschkul said it would have wasted money on well-off motorists. Lawmakers should instead set welfare payments to automatically increase when living costs rise, said Lianna Kressin, an advocate with the Statewide Poverty Action Network.
Earlier this month, President Joe Biden announced the White House would host a national conference on hunger for first time since 1969. At Auburn Food Bank, clients can sometimes be heard bashing “the government” for the economic situation, said Christian. But inflation is a global problem with multiple causes, said Rainier Valley Food Bank’s Hatcher-Mays, who focuses on what she can control: feeding South Seattle residents.
“We can make your dollar go a little farther,” and some days, Hatcher-Mays said, “That’s about as good as it gets.”
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