With finances strained for many families across Clark County, nonprofit groups are trying, with mixed results, to get free emergency food to people who need it. Some food pantries have experienced long lines during the COVID-19 pandemic and increased questions about access to food, while others have seen fewer clients.
The Giving Closet in central Vancouver had a quiet reception at its Thursday food giveaway. That could be, in part, because the clothing closet for low-income households has been closed for seven weeks, and it doesn’t normally do food distribution. In the nonprofit’s 20 years of running a clothing closet, it’s never really had to advertise because regular clients know what days and times they can shop, Development Director Randy Graves said. Clients typically spread news by word of mouth.
“They don’t know this is happening,” he said. “It’s totally different from what we normally do.”
FISH Westside Food Pantry of Vancouver had a similarly quiet response to its Saturday food giveaway. The nonprofit had carefully disseminated information about the two-hour experiment to try to avoid being overwhelmed by a huge queue of vehicles, like the ones that have occasionally bogged down streets outside the Clark County Food Bank during its food giveaways.
“Each pantry seems to be experiencing this differently,” said Emily Kaleel, director of programs at the food bank.
She noted that food sources have been shifting since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. At first, the food bank wasn’t able to recover much food from grocery stores because the shelves were bare. When it tried to order food, it wasn’t readily available. Now, grocery store recovery has rebounded, food orders have arrived and new food sources are coming online.
One of the newest food streams is the Farmers to Families Food Box Program through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, where the government purchases foods from farmers who otherwise wouldn’t be able to sell their goods (preventing some food from going to waste).
Kaleel said Clark County will receive 50 truckloads of food each week from Portland-based Pacific Coast Fruit Company. The business was awarded three contracts from the USDA, one for fruit and vegetable boxes ($2,114,640), another for dairy products ($8.1 million) and a third for combination boxes ($9.45 million).
The food could arrive as early as Monday, giving a boost to local pantries, pop-up food sites, schools and other emergency food providers.
Besides government supplements, groups large and small are holding food drives, and businesses and individuals around the area are donating to emergency food sites.
The Giving Closet held a food drive last week and used a grant from the Community Foundation for Southwest Washington to purchase some shelf-stable foods. Graves said the nonprofit plans to give out food bags every Wednesday and Thursday until the food runs out; some is given to the nearby Live Love Center at Living Hope Church, which is hosting a temporary tent site for people who are homeless.
“Our goal is just trying to feed people,” Graves said.
In a couple of weeks, The Giving Closet may do a soft reopening where racks of clothes are brought outside to the parking lot. However, it may not accept new donations until summer.
About a mile away at the Society of St. Vincent de Paul Vancouver Conference people waited in line to pick up food boxes on Thursday.
Volunteer Maggie Bomber sent the boxes down a conveyor belt to help increase social distancing among volunteers and clients. The conveyor belt is normally used for assembly-line construction of holiday food boxes. By late morning, the pantry was out of milk.
Nicholas Chandler explained that he visits food pantries to supplement the amount of groceries he can buy using food stamps.
“I’m on Social Security, so I don’t have much to live by but what the government allows me to have,” he said.
Executive Director Carolyn Palmer said in April the nonprofit served 1,955 households, a 51 percent increase from the 1,296 households served in February.
She attributes her organization’s busyness to its central location near the Fourth Plain corridor, one of the areas hardest hit economically by the virus. Also, she’s not requiring identification from anyone coming to get a food box.
“I’m open to anyone who walks up and has a need,” Palmer said. “I want it to be as easy as possible for anyone with food insecurity.”
The pantry also gives away hundreds of sack lunches to people who are homeless.
During a live Facebook panel on Monday, Clark County Food Bank President Alan Hamilton and other community leaders discussed the emergency food system. It faces challenges because food is something people need every day, multiple times a day, Hamilton noted.
“Food is how we do our lives. At whatever economic status you find yourself in, it’s a huge part,” he said.
Access to food and how it’s distributed has changed due to the novel coronavirus. Pantries have moved away from allowing people to shop inside and pick out items they want; instead, they’ve opted toward pre-made food boxes that are picked up curbside. Besides food interruptions, it’s resulted in social interruptions — a lack of connection and relationship in the food system, Hamilton said.
Brett Bryant, who chairs the Clark County Food Bank’s board, said he grew up in poverty, and his family frequented food pantries in Eugene, Ore.
“I certainly celebrate what food banks and food pantries do, but I have to say it took me a long time to overcome the sense of kind of shame and inferiority that comes partly from those visits,” he said. “Having food is better than not having food. It came at a price.”
Now, there are millions of people nationwide who are in a similar situation, unable to afford their regular grocery bill. Bryant said he sees the coronavirus not only as a threat to people’s health but also a threat to people’s dignity and self-respect.