The Bellingham Food Bank is an amazing place to see and experience. It offers the brightest and not so bright views of our community. For the fifth year in a row, Bellingham Food Bank will provide free groceries to a record number of families. Our food bank can fill one with sadness, or just as easily overwhelm you with inspiration and joy. More often than not, I choose the later.
I had the pleasure of handing out turkeys to more than 1,200 families during the week of Thanksgiving. I cannot begin to describe all that I saw and heard that week. I saw senior citizens on fixed incomes visiting a food bank for the first time, veterans of all ages seeking help with this most basic necessity after having served our country, and so many children. I heard the stories of families who are looking for work, challenged by the costs of healthcare, and hoping they can afford to heat their apartments and homes this winter. Despite all of this, the food bank remains a place that has far more smiles than frowns.
Our volunteers bring smiles to many, myself included. They are committed, kind and so giving. Many of our volunteers are current or former food bank users and they help bring dignity to our food bank that our staff so often discuss and strive for. Our staff has similar traits. We are deeply focused on our mission. We believe hunger is unacceptable. This year our food bank purchased, grew, rescued and distributed more eggs, milk, local vegetables and other nutritious foods not often associated with food banks than ever before. Despite our good work, we know we must continue to push, do more and do better.
One in six local families visit a food bank on a regular basis. Need continues to grow. The situations our families are facing seem to growing in complexity and severity. Yet, when people say it must be a depressing place to work, I usually respond that it is the opposite of depressing. For me, our food bank is a place of hope.
I find hope in the families that we serve. During the week of Thanksgiving, I received a lifetime of handshakes, hugs, blessings and thank yous. The appreciation I saw was sincere and deep. That is a gift I know many do not get to experience.
I am inspired by seven-year-old Elizabeth. On her birthday, instead of gifts, she asked her friends to bring food donations to her party. When asked why she did this, her response was simple, "it makes me feel good to help others."
A week after Thanksgiving, I was feeling tired and a bit overwhelmed by all we had seen and experienced the prior week. I was having a tough time finding the joy of our work. I always know how important it is, but despair was winning the battle over hope that day. My last job for the day was to pick up food from a Whatcom Middle School food drive. I showed up and was overwhelmed. The students at the school had collected more than 2,000 pounds of food and filled our truck with their donations. They were clearly proud of all they had done, exceeding the expectations of many, and knew the food was needed by their neighbors. Their pride and energy changed my spirits that day and I continue to tap into the vision of their faces as they helped load our truck that day.
At Bellingham Food Bank, we believe hunger is unacceptable. But, every day we are open, we are reminded that it is very real. Instead of letting reality bog us down with cynicism and negativity, we use the efforts and generosity of our community to keep us focused, energized and hopeful. When we ask you, our community for support, you are always there for us and our families.
I invite you to join us and experience the gifts that come from helping to feed our community. If you too believe hunger is unacceptable, join our work and become part of our hunger-fighting family. Helping our neighbors and friends is a rewarding and joyful experience. I also believe it is the right thing to do.
Mike Cohen is executive director of the Bellingham Food Bank, 1824 Ellis St. For more information go to bellinghamfoodbank.org.