John van Hengel was serving dinner at a Phoenix soup kitchen in 1967 when a young mother in line said something that broke his heart. The soup kitchen helped her get by, she said – it was a welcome addition to the food she was able to gather from the dumpster behind a grocery store.
She was grateful that she was able to provide for her family, but van Hengel knew there had to be a better way. He wondered, what if usable surplus food were not left to be picked up as trash but collected and “deposited” somewhere that it could be “withdrawn” by families facing the same situation?
Soon, America’s first food bank – St. Mary’s – opened its doors in an abandoned Phoenix building. During its first year, the organization collected and distributed 250,000 pounds of food.
Van Hengel had learned that much of what landed in dumpsters wasn’t garbage at all, but perfectly healthy food. Sometimes an entire box of bottles would be discarded because one happened to be broken. Dented cans also would get tossed. Redirecting the usable groceries was a no-brainer. Yet van Hengel’s idea did more than reduce waste and feed people; it established a commitment to ensuring dignity for those experiencing hunger.
This model of “rescuing” food that would have been discarded has continued to evolve over the years. Community groups, neighbors, Scout troops and local businesses joined in, creating food drives and other collection points. One of the most recent changes to the model is the shift from offering prepacked boxes of food to a service that more closely resembles a grocery store, where those in need choose their own foods.
Hopelink has recently made this change to their own operations. Hopelink’s first food bank opened in Woodinville in 1971. Early on, volunteers put together bags of groceries based on whatever food had been donated. In time, prepacked bags gave way to tables of food, staffed by volunteers. Fresher items were added. Variety increased.
In 2009, Hopelink food banks began a ground-breaking transformation. A new Kirkland center provided the space and hours of operation needed to create Hopelink’s first grocery store-style food bank.
The new design enabled clients to pick up a grocery cart on the way in and shop for what they needed, taking time to read labels and choosing foods from shelves stocked with canned and packaged items, baked goods, fresh produce, meat and dairy and even household goods and pet food. By 2017, all five Hopelink food banks had been converted to the new design.
Food bank visitors appreciated the additional choice, and the opportunity to take more time. But one day, when staff overheard a child talk about how much he liked “shopping at the store” while they were in the food bank, they knew the change had been the right one. No longer would visitors need to hold out their hands for food … they would be able to reach up and choose exactly what they wanted.
During the pandemic, Hopelink temporarily reconfigured its food distribution program to safely meet growing demand, providing prepacked boxes along with fresh and frozen items at outside entrances. In 2021, Hopelink distributed 6.5 million pounds of food – an increase of nearly a million pounds over 2020.
A return to inside shopping in early May brought additional change: Hopelink food banks are now called Hopelink Food Markets, and all offer additional scheduling flexibility. And for the first time, shoppers no longer need to check out when they’re finished.
Hopelink’s food program has continued to evolve over time, growing and adapting to the needs of the local community; revamping food banks to ensure that the space feels welcoming and ensuring that clients are treated with respect, and providing a good variety of food that is fresh, nutritious and culturally relevant, with purchases guided by each food bank’s particular demographics. Hopelink also offers fresh produce gleaned from local farms and reaches out into the community to deliver food through the Hopelink Mobile Market.
According to Feeding America – the largest hunger-relief organization in the United States and the direct culmination of van Hengel’s efforts – 53 million people turned to food banks and community programs for support in 2021, more than one in six Americans. The pandemic clearly increased demand, but food programs remain a vital resource for families and individuals.
In 1967, van Hengel’s simple idea for getting food to people experiencing hunger was revolutionary. Today, it is the foundation for food banks all over the world, including in Washington state.
To learn more about Hopelink or to learn more about volunteer opportunities, visit www.Hopelink.org.