Hunger doesn’t have to happen, and yet no amount of food charity seems to end hunger. This contradiction and complication are impossible not to notice in a land of plenty. Despite decades of efforts, hunger and food insecurity haven’t disappeared.
“It is a well-known theme in hunger relief organizations that states, ‘we can’t food bank our way out of hunger,’ ” says Mark Coleman, senior media and marketing officer at Food Lifeline. In other words, we can’t solve the problem by providing food alone. Instead, to solve hunger we need to address both the daily needs of people facing hunger as well as hunger’s root causes.
“Rather than evaluating success on the volume of food distributed, Food Lifeline focuses on creating long-term impact by partnering with local leaders and co-creating programs in neighborhoods and communities most impacted by hunger. We focus on reducing barriers to accessing nutritious, fresh produce, proteins, dairy, and pantry staples in ways that meet community needs,” Coleman says.
Food-secure households are defined as those with access, at all times, to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Food-insecure households aren’t confident they’ll have or be able to get enough food for family members’ needs due to lack of money or other resources.
This often leads to skipping or cutting back on meals. Some food-insecure homes might dampen the effects through less-varied diets, government food assistance, or groceries from community pantries. In 2020, there were over 38 million people living in food-insecure households, including 6.1 million children.
In Western Washington, last year Food Lifeline helped more than 1.37 million Washington residents, more than twice previous years. And while many areas are rebounding from the pandemic, some counties experience far higher or disproportionate rates of food insecurity. For example, Black and Latino households are twice as likely to experience food insecurity, according to Seattle and King County Public Health.
Through grant-funded research, Food Lifeline found that seven counties within their 17-county service area are severely impacted by COVID-19 and experiencing the highest racial disparity levels and disproportionate food insecurity. Some counties such as Skagit, Mason and Snohomish experience the highest racial disparities. Others, such as King, Pacific and Lewis Counties, experience the greatest proportional need.
The results help prioritize investments for future partnerships, programming and resources. For example, a new network of local Food Access Specialists in these counties will work alongside existing and emerging programs to create community-led food assistance programs.
“Hunger is a poverty-driven phenomenon, exacerbated by inequity and systemic racism. To end hunger, we need to help people out of poverty,” Coleman says. Listening to and empowering communities’ needs helps remove barriers and restore power where food is concerned.
So, delivering food isn’t enough — getting the right foods into the right hands is the goal. One of the organization’s biggest challenges is moving food to where it’s needed most. Within Skagit County, those living on Swinomish Indian Tribal Community lands only have a gas station as a nearby food source.
“Food deserts” such as this don’t offer access to stores selling healthy, affordable food. According to the USDA’s original definition, food deserts are low-income areas where at least 33% of the population lives more than a mile from a supermarket or large grocery store in urban areas and 10 miles from a grocery store in rural areas.
Larger stores tend to carry a wider variety of nutritious fresh produce, along with dairy, dry packaged foods, frozen foods and fresh meat. Without access to supermarkets, communities may depend on convenience stores and gas stations, which tend to carry limited or inconsistent access to fresh foods.
Under the Community Food Sovereignty Fund, Food Lifeline supplies fresh produce that the tribe distributes at several stands across the tribal lands. But the fund is also helping to build a “hoop house,” or covered garden, able to produce food year-round.
Currently, the Community Food Sovereignty Fund supports eight programs in Skagit, Whatcom, Snohomish and King Counties. The program’s funding for organizations includes Catholic Housing Services of Western Washington’s community gardens and edible permaculture for six farmworker housing communities and Mutual Aid of Skagit County’s grocery gift cards for traditional and culturally relevant foods from minority-owned local stores.
In Skagit County, the Tri-Parish Food Bank serves a large Latino population of seasonal farmworkers. Foods such as tomatillos, jalapeños and corn were in high demand, but Food Lifeline’s bulk food donations can’t guarantee availability. So Food Lifeline helped Tri-Parish create contracts with local growers for a steady flow of these foods.
Mobile food pantries also serve nutrition to food desert locations across the nation. These pantries on wheels bring free food to a convenient community location such as a school, church or community center.
“The idea of meeting people where they are is critical to this work, and I feel it makes people feel supported, cared for and important,” Coleman says.
Food Lifeline provides nutritious food to 1.37 million people by sourcing from a variety of food industry partners. We distribute through 350 food banks, shelters, and meal programs, enabling us to provide the equivalent of more than 282,000 meals daily.