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State funds will help Second Harvest improve safety, services

Tue., May 31, 2011

Volunteer Bruce Rogers seals food boxes destined for the elderly last week at Second Harvest. The volunteers are part of a group that puts in time on Tuesdays and Thursdays, calling themselves the “Mixed Nuts.” (Jesse Tinsley)
Volunteer Bruce Rogers seals food boxes destined for the elderly last week at Second Harvest. The volunteers are part of a group that puts in time on Tuesdays and Thursdays, calling themselves the “Mixed Nuts.” (Jesse Tinsley)

A few months ago 50 volunteers, including many servicemen and -women from Fairchild Air Force Base, gathered in Spokane’s Second Harvest Food Bank warehouse and distribution center. Their job was to unload and sort a trailer load – about 42,000 pounds – of apples.

It took the crew four hours, working nonstop.

But thanks to $1.25 million the Washington Legislature set aside in the 2011-’13 capital projects budget, the food bank plans to buy equipment that will let four volunteers sort through that load of apples in two hours.

Directors at Spokane’s largest food bank say they’ll use the money for new equipment and other improvements to meet increased demand for food by people who are struggling to make ends meet.

Second Harvest CEO and President Jason Clark said the volunteer-supported nonprofit is careful about turning to the Legislature for money. This is only the second time in recent years the food bank has sought state support; six years ago the state gave $300,000 to help buy a freezer-cooler, Clark said.

“We try to be very intentional if we ask for money,” he said.

State Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane, said the food bank request made it through in a tough budget year because it had strong support statewide. Second Harvest distributes to 21 Eastern Washington and five North Idaho counties. It takes in and ships out roughly 1.5 million pounds of donated food per month.

It helped that all three budget proposals – by the governor, the Senate and the House – included the funding, Ormsby said.

Plus, he said, legislators know Second Harvest is dealing with a growing population of people  affected by the economy.

“We know that food distribution is a huge issue during the recession,” Ormsby said. “Getting food to people is a fundamental human need.”

Clark said the state money will go to four projects to make sure Second Harvest can keep up with steady growth both in food donations and food deliveries.

Part of the money will be spent on sorting and lifting machines to help volunteers sort through food more quickly and efficiently and to increase the capacity of food Second Harvest can take in at the center, 1234 E. Front Ave.

“We’ve reached the outer limit for how much we can physically handle,” Clark said.

“We need that automated equipment to make it possible to accept larger food contributions from our industry partners,” he said.

The goal is to be able to increase the current capacity, about 20 million pounds of food per year, to 30 million pounds in the next few years.

The equipment upgrade will coincide with adding a heated, enclosed volunteer center inside the 80,000-square-foot warehouse, Clark said. The 3,000-square-foot area that will protect volunteers from forklifts and other equipment operated throughout the rest of the building, he said.

The second project will upgrade loading dock doors and dock seals to protect the quality of food being loaded or unloaded from trucks at the warehouse, said Clark.

Third on the list is a series of energy-efficiency improvements to the building.

“We don’t need a new facility, but it is 60 years old,” Clark noted. Avista engineers have laid out a number of upgrades that could be adopted over several years. Total energy savings should come to roughly $25,000 per year.

The fourth project is targeted at relentless pigeons that for years have haunted the distribution center, Clark said. “Pigeons seem to adore our building.”

In order to make the building less attractive to birds and rodents, the plan is to remodel the façade and create a fully enclosed canopy covering the truck loading area.

A few years ago the agency developed a system of netting to enclose the canopy to keep pigeons from roosting. “That netting eventually degrades, and it will all have to be replaced,” Clark said.

The same objective applies to the front of the building, to guarantee food safety, he said. “We need to go beyond temporary measures. We simply need a permanent, low-maintenance solution,” Clark said. 

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