About one person out of every five in Whatcom County regularly depends on a food bank, and one out of every four children needs the service.
Half of those people have a family member with a job. No matter how many times Mike Cohen presents those figures, the reaction he sees is one of surprise.
“It’s easy to assume that it’s people we don’t know,” says Cohen, the executive director of Bellingham Food Bank.
As the figures indicate, many Whatcom residents have acquaintances, friends or family members who are what’s called “food insecure,” meaning they’re unsure how or where they will obtain the food they need to get by. Food bank users work among us, share classrooms with our children, and have served us in the military.
The need has grown in the past few decades, and Bellingham Food Bank is expanding to meet the demand.
Among its many programs, the nonprofit food bank acts as a hunger-relief hub for about 20 food banks and meal programs in Whatcom and San Juan counties. Since 2007, Bellingham Food Bank has increased its distribution to the other organizations by 250 percent, moving more than two million pounds of food in 2014, in addition to the three million pounds provided to Bellingham residents.
So Bellingham Food Bank is currently building additional warehouse space to double its capacity, with the project scheduled to be finished in late spring. The extra space will provide more storage for food contributions and additional opportunities for bulk purchases, reducing costs by 10 to 15 percent.
“I want to make sure we never turn down food for people who need it,” Cohen says.
The food bank is growing in other areas as well, and supporting local agriculture in the process. For example, under its Food Bank Fresh program, they plan to purchase $60,000 of produce from local farmers this year, placing orders in February for delivery this summer. The program gives growers predictable income and gives the food bank an inexpensive way to acquire fruits and vegetables.
“We want not just to give away a lot of food,” Cohen says, “but a lot of good food.”