Mike Cohen’s world dramatically changed starting in 2007, when the nation’s economy started to sour.
Cohen is the executive director of Bellingham Food Bank. Before 2007, he said, the number of people using food banks rose and fell with population growth, with most people accepting food to tide them over during a short setback. But as the economy worsened, more families starting showing up for free food, and they showed up more often and for longer periods of time.
Since then, the number of people using the Food Bank has risen sharply each year, sometimes with double-digit growth. In the year just finished, Bellingham Food Bank served nearly 140,000 clients.
“That’s how many mouths we fed,” Cohen said.
That figure is 7 percent higher than in 2013, and 87 percent higher than in the benchmark 2007.
“Again, it was our busiest year,” Cohen said.
With rising demand, some food banks stayed afloat by cutting back on the quantity and quantity of food they handed out, Cohen said. Fortunately in Whatcom County, businesses, families and gardeners boosted their donations of food and cash, and more people volunteered to help. Last year, those sources contributed nearly 2 million pounds of food, up nearly 75 percent since 2007.
“That allowed us to increase the amount and the quality of food we’re distributing,” Cohen said.
Now, Bellingham Food Bank is a few months away from its next big step forward. Early June is the expected completion date for a new warehouse next to the existing building at 1824 Ellis St. The $2.3 million expansion will double overall space to about 20,000 square feet, doubling the capacity for cold storage and tripling the capacity for dry storage.
For years, Bellingham Food Bank has quietly served as a distribution hub for 13 other food banks and 12 other meal programs in Whatcom and San Juan counties. Much of that food comes from regional nonprofit sources, including Food Lifeline in Shoreline and Northwest Harvest in Seattle. Those groups, and ones like them, have become more efficient collecting donated food from grocery stores, bakeries, farms and food processors, Cohen said.
Those groups foresee gathering more donations in the future but want hubs like Bellingham Food Bank to be able to process the larger shipments, Cohen said. Given the already crowded conditions at Bellingham Food Bank, that made a new warehouse a virtual necessity just a handful of years after the Food Bank’s current building was completed in 2008.
The first floor of the new warehouse will provide cold storage and space for receiving and sorting large shipments. Back in 2007, the Food Bank received one or two semi-trucks a month with regional food donations. Now it’s one or two semis each week.
The second floor of the warehouse will store packaged and canned food for other food banks and meal programs. Last year, Bellingham Food Bank distributed 2 million pounds of food to other outlets in the two counties. That’s up 280 percent from 2007. For the other food banks, the food channeled through Bellingham accounts for 60 to 80 percent of their inventory, Cohen said.
Existing cold storage and warehouse space in the Food Bank will handle food for Bellingham residents. Last year, the Food Bank provided 3 million pounds of food to local families.
The Food Bank has two workers who handle warehouse duties. The new warehouse will make operations so much more efficient that no additional workers will be needed, Cohen said.
Looking ahead, Cohen hopes to expand the Food Bank programs that glean spare food from local farms. Last year, gleaners gathered about 200,000 pounds, and there’s more that could be gathered from local fields and orchards, he said.
Cohen also hopes to expand a program in which the Food Bank pays local farmers in advance for produce delivered later in the growing season, and wants to help small, volunteer-run food banks in the Foothills expand to better serve their rural clients.
Bellingham Food Bank: 360-676-0392, . bellinghamfoodbank.org
State Community Development Block Grant: $750,000
Bellingham Food Bank reserves: up to $538,000
The Norcliffe Foundation: $300,000
M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust: $195,000
City of Bellingham Community Development Block Grant: $185,000
Bellingham community members: $86,000
Chuckanut Health Foundation: $50,000
Boeing Employees Community Fund: $40,000
Bellingham Bay Rotary Club: $25,000
North Whatcom County Rotary Club: $15,000
Eleanor and Henry Jansen Foundation: $10,000
Sunrise Rotary Club of Bellingham: $10,000