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Community center serving Mount Baker Foothills to expand

Mount Baker High School Life Skills Transitions student Matt Hanson brings in a box of donated bread to the Foothills Food Bank at St. Peter Catholic Church east of Deming Monday morning, Feb. 1, 2016. The transitions students volunteer every Monday and Tuesday, unloading, sorting and delivering food at the food bank. The food bank will move to the East Whatcom Regional Resource Center when a second building there is constructed.
Mount Baker High School Life Skills Transitions student Matt Hanson brings in a box of donated bread to the Foothills Food Bank at St. Peter Catholic Church east of Deming Monday morning, Feb. 1, 2016. The transitions students volunteer every Monday and Tuesday, unloading, sorting and delivering food at the food bank. The food bank will move to the East Whatcom Regional Resource Center when a second building there is constructed. pdwyer@bhamherald.com

A part of rural Whatcom County described as a “food desert” will have a new home for its food bank once a second building is completed at the East Whatcom Regional Resource Center on Kendall Road.

That building will be 10,000 to 12,000 square feet.

It will house the Foothills Food Bank and space for “a variety of purposes based on the expressed needs of the community, including healthy youth activities, a priority identified during recent planning activities,” said Greg Winter, executive director of the Opportunity Council, which is overseeing the expansion.

The nonprofit Opportunity Council has so far secured $750,000 from a community development block grant and $300,000 from real estate excise tax promised by Whatcom County government for the expansion.

“It’s terrific that the County Council and the county executive have been very supportive of the efforts to provide some resources for this expansion,” Winter said.

The USDA has classified the Foothills as a “food desert” — a low-income area where at least 33% of residents don’t have adequate access to a supermarket or large grocery store.

The exact cost for the building is still being determined, with the Opportunity Council working with an architect and the Bellingham Food Bank, which has expanded its own operations, on the project. There isn’t a start date for construction yet.

The goal is to have the East Whatcom Regional Resource Center serve as a hub for healthy food, including as the site for community meals, food education, a farmers market, and a mobile food bank.

The Opportunity Council manages the center, which opened in 2011 to serve the social, health and educational needs of the Foothills.

The second building will allow the food bank to move from St. Peter Catholic Church, 6210 Mount Baker Highway, which is about 3  1/2 miles away.

That will make it possible for the food bank to serve more people and to better store produce, dairy and meat. The wiring in the church is old and can’t adequately handle larger appliances.

“We have very limited refrigerator and freezer space,” said Cheryl Thompson, board president of Foothills Food Bank.

200 Families are served a week in winter at the Foothills Food Bank

The expansion grew out of the Foothills Food Summit in 2014 that detailed the needs of Acme, Kendall, Glacier, Maple Falls and Deming. The Foothills cover about 620 square miles and have about 9,000 residents.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has classified the Foothills as a “food desert,” meaning that it is a low-income area where at least 33 percent of residents don’t have adequate access to a supermarket or large grocery store. In rural areas, that means they’re more than 10 miles away from such stores.

What that means is that people living in food deserts struggle to get affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains and other foods that make up a healthy diet, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Meanwhile, 21 percent of all Foothills households rely on food stamps, according to a report that grew out of the food summit, and 68 percent of Kendall Elementary School students qualify for the free and reduced lunch program.

Moving to the resource center will help the food bank better meet the needs of Foothills residents. Thompson said there has been a “substantial increase” in the number of people turning to the food bank since 2007-08, when the recession began.

In winter, the food bank serves about 200 families a week. In summer, it’s 140 to 160.

About 50 percent are children, according to Thompson.

“This is our future. We want to make sure that we have a well-rounded diet for the children and their parents, and the elderly,” Thompson said, adding that the goal isn’t just to provide food but more food that is nutrient-dense and perishable including fruits, vegetables, dairy and protein.

Perishables are more expensive so offering them would leave people with more money for rent, medication or clothing, she said.

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea

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