Thirty percent of the homes in King County have reported food scarcity since the pandemic began in March 2020, according to the YMCA of Greater Seattle. Half of those households include children.
To combat hunger in the region, many organizations have stepped up efforts to deliver food to those in need. The YMCA of Greater Seattle, for example, provided more than 467,000 meals across more than 60 delivery sites in 2020.
Luam Wersom, owner of the Mojito restaurant near Lake City, has contributed more than 5,000 meals to the YMCA’s hunger fight since the pandemic’s onset. Every Monday finds him dishing up 120 carryout bowls of stir-fried chicken, rice and steamed vegetables in his restaurant kitchen for distribution to senior citizens in communities managed by King County Housing Authority and Imagine Housing.
The collaboration with Wersom is an example of how the YMCA actively partners with other individuals and organizations in the local community to address gaps in the social-services safety net and help people facing a crisis of hunger, housing or health care — or all three.
Wersom, 41, has seen both sides of the hunger problem. He was born in Ethiopia and spent four years as a refugee in Greece when he was a young man, subsisting on food donated by churches. Arriving in Seattle in 1993, he and his family relied on low-income housing, and were no strangers to poverty or hunger, until he was able to buy the Latin American eatery.
Today, he and his wife have a 10-year-old daughter, Gia, who helps pack the meals at Mojito on Monday nights. While Gia has never known the kind of food scarcity that 1 in 4 King County children face, Wersom understands the tormenting dilemma of parents who struggle to feed their hungry children.
“It’s heart-wrenching, but it happens day to day,” he said. “Do you pay the electricity or do you feed your kid? Do you buy food or buy water?”
In the 21 years that Wersom has owned Mojito, word about his dedication to feeding the less fortunate has gotten around the community.
“I sometimes get a random phone call at the restaurant. ‘I’m sorry to bother you, but my brother is stuck in his room and has no food,’ ” he said. “I don’t ask questions. I say, ‘Come down to the restaurant and pick up some food.’ Not everybody is humble enough to be willing to say they’re hungry and they need help.”
When YMCA staffers first met Wersom and saw his passion and commitment, it was a win-win for all parties concerned.
“We were eager to jump into a partnership with Mojito … as well as King County to be able to identify and weekly serve hot meals to five nearby senior housing locations,” said Dallas Wood, director of the YMCA of Greater Seattle’s community food programs. “Not only has it been rewarding to get over 5,000 meals into the hands of those in need, but in the process the Y has been able to build strong relationships with two community partners that can help us support our mission going forward.”
With its centralized organization and team-based structure, the YMCA of Greater Seattle is King County’s largest provider of food services for the hungry. It also offers emergency shelter, transitional housing and other residential services to the county’s roughly 11,000 youths and young adults who experience homelessness each night. And with 75 percent of the region’s young people reporting a mental health crisis in the past year, delivering behavioral health care services has taken on increased urgency at the Y.
Wersom credits the YMCA’s coordination and distribution network with the success of his Monday-night meal program.
“If it wasn’t for YMCA and King County Housing Authority, this thing would not have worked. They’re doing it quietly and they do it without advertising, without glamour. It takes a team, you know. If you have a soccer team and your goalie doesn’t show up, it doesn’t matter how good you are.
“For me, this is a lifestyle. It’s not an event. It’s not once a year. One of the reasons I’m still surviving in my restaurant is that I’m blessed to be able to give back,” he said. “Just because you haven’t experienced hunger doesn’t mean you’re not going to.”
At the YMCA of Greater Seattle, it’s our mission to build a community where all people are encouraged to develop their fullest potential in spirit, mind and body. Visit us at seattleymca.org to get involved today.