Community shows its compassion with food bank

The Thurston County Food Bank is celebrating its 40th anniversary today, which reminds us of two important facts: one, that we continue to live in difficult economic times; and, two, that we live in a compassionate community among men and women who voluntarily step forward to help their neighbors in times of need.

The food bank could not exist without community volunteers.

Prior to today’s open house from 3-6 p.m., the food bank invited past and present volunteers to an anniversary thank-you luncheon attended by more than 325 people. It was a good turnout, and the crowd represented just a fraction of the 6,000 individual volunteers who contribute time every year.

In a better world, a relatively prosperous community like the South Sound wouldn’t need food banks. But we do.

After five years of the Great Recession, which is hanging around like a winter cold, no community and few people or families have proved immune from its economic effects. We have all been touched. Some more than others.

Demand for the food bank’s services grew by 19 percent in its most recent year-over-year comparison. It has doubled the number of people served three times in eight years, and client visits have increased 159 percent since 2004.

It’s the same story across the nation. The number of “working poor” in America has risen to the highest level since the 1960s, according to the Census Bureau. One in seven Americans lives in poverty. The nation’s poverty rate has increased to 14.3 percent.

Starting as the Neighbors in Need program out of the First Christian Church in 1972 in the aftermath of massive layoffs at Boeing, the food bank is now part of statewide and nationwide networks distributing food to people who are experiencing short-term or chronic need.

Thurston County Food Bank belongs to the national network Feeding America, a nonprofit organization that buys food with federal dollars to distribute among its 200 members. Feeding America recorded a 30 percent increase in demand for emergency food assistance nationwide in 2008.

That data indirectly led to $100 million of the 2009 federal stimulus program being set aside for food banks, about four times what it historically had received annually from the Department of Agriculture.

Robert Coit, executive director of the Thurston County Food Bank said the nation got a double-whammy for those stimulus dollars. The money was used to purchase nutrient-dense foods, such as meat and poultry, dairy products, eggs and fresh produce, instead of the canned goods. At the same time, the one-time stimulus aid also supported farms, where the fresh foods were purchased.

Washington’s food banks also receive about $7 million a year from the state, through the Emergency Food Assistance program. Although it is a small amount, Coit says the funds are especially helpful because they come with no restrictions. That means food banks can either buy food, or employ labor to get food.

The Washington Food Coalition, an advocacy group for the state’s food banks, growers and other organizations involved in providing emergency food, may seek an increase to the annual grant during the 2013 legislative session. If it does, it will probably point to the 27 percent increase in demand statewide since 2008, while the annual funding amount has remained flat.

With so many needs around the state, including education funding, it would be a tough time to ask for more money, but it is when times are tough that the need is greatest.

Someday, perhaps, Thurston County will no longer need a food bank. But for nearly a half-century, the food bank has provided one of life’s necessities – something most of us take for granted – to suddenly desperate people.

Within the context of these grim realities, we can and should celebrate the success of the Thurston County Food Bank, made possible by many thousands of dedicated and caring volunteers.