Roxana Pardo Garcia knows food banks. As a kid, her family benefited from them, but with mixed feelings.
“They would give us stuff that we didn’t know what to do with,” she remembered. “And we were taking food from people who knew what to do with it.”
What they couldn’t use, they gave away, then got help from other people in their community, who shared their masa, beans, tortillas and spices.
“But you kind of starved sometimes,” Pardo Garcia remembered. “You just had to make it work. You stretched things out, or you were eating the same thing over and over again.”
Years later, that hasn’t changed. Six months ago, Pardo Garcia’s aunt told her that her cupboards were getting bare, but that she didn’t want to go to the food bank.
“Nothing they were giving her was something she could use,” Garcia said.
It inspired Garcia to start Alimentando el Pueblo, a program that collects and distributes culturally relevant — and familiar — foods to families from Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America.
When the group started distributing food boxes at Lake Burien Presbyterian Church in Burien, families were confused.
“We would ask them, ‘Mexican, Caribbean or Central American box?’ and they would look at us like, ‘Huh?’ ” Pardo Garcia remembered. ” ‘Wait, there’s options?’ “
But the food bank does more than feed families. It’s also an effort to “address the existing structural racism and inequities that result in families going hungry,” according to King County, which recognized the problem and opened its wallet.
Last month, the program was awarded a $296,000 grant that will help to pay for food and staff.
In announcing the grant, Public Health — Seattle & King County cited a recent report that showed that — even before COVID-19 — 12% of King County adults experienced food insecurity. By June of this year, the report said, 18% more households in King County received food assistance, compared to January 2020. That’s an additional 17,300 households.
Lake Burien Presbyterian, Global to Local in Tukwila and other community organizations have long provided food to area residents. But COVID-19 and its economic impacts have exacerbated “existing structural racism and inequities that result in families going hungry,” the statement from Public Health said.
And, since many families in the Highline area have cultural ties to the Americas and the Caribbean, partners in Alimentando el Pueblo started raising funds and determining how to source culturally relevant food in bulk to pack into food boxes.
“Our society has put such an emphasis on the negative of asking for help,” said Shearl Cornelius, the office and property manager at Lake Burien Presbyterian. “This is turning it into a celebration of culture and community.”
Pardo Garcia, 30, had been working in the Community Police Commission when she felt a strong pull to serve her community in a new way. She had long-standing relationships in the Highline area, and reached out to nonprofits about starting a Latino food bank.
“This is what my calling is,” Pardo Garcia said, adding that her mother, Hilda Pardo, helped get things started. “I will be where my community needs me to be.”
She met with local partners who agreed on a drive-thru format at the church, which was doing its own food donations. Then she helped launch a GoFundMe, and reached out for food donations. Recipients have a choice of a Mexican box, a Caribbean box or a Central American box of food.
“We are grateful to have food banks, but there is something about received food that allows you to make your grandmother’s recipes,” Pardo Garcia said.
“Food is sacred, food is ceremony,” she continued. “And for folks of color, who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic and experienced systemic racism, it really is being seen.
“People feel like we are looking out for them, and changing the standard of how food distribution works.”
The groups initially raised more than $10,000 for bulk food and produce, and, since late July, have distributed 450 boxes to more than 1,200 community members.
They include Grabriela Gonzalez, who appreciates seeing familiar food in the boxes.
“Being able to use all of the food, instead of sharing pieces of it,” she said.
“It’s great to receive basic food items that we use, because otherwise we donate it to someone else,” said Marilu Acosta. “We would always gift it forward.”
Acosta and Gonzalez have since become volunteers, and noticed that some people who had stopped coming to the food bank have returned.
“People are really happy and grateful with the effort,” Acosta said. “They’re always asking when the next distribution is so they can come back.
“It’s just nice to have things they know.”
Indeed, the boxes include sopas, frijoles, rice, beans. Tortillas made from scratch.
Benji Demps, a musician who has become “the everything person” at Lake Burien Presbyterian Church, has seen firsthand the difference the food bank has made.
“People are very grateful,” he said. “It caters to their culture and that’s what counts. There’s nothing like getting some food and not being able to cook it. They’re like, ‘What do we do with this?’
Patricia Palomino, another food-bank recipient who also serves as a volunteer, said that as the weather gets cold, the boxes will include more rice, which has many purposes. Mix it with milk and cinnamon for breakfast, she suggested.
“Arroz con leche,” she said. “It just tastes like home.”