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News >  Spokane

Rural food banks struggle to meet increased need with fewer volunteers

Michael Cantrell-Smith, 27, loads two bags of food in Christina Battles' truck as he volunteers with the Loon Lake Food Bank on Thursday, April 2, 2020, at Loon Lake Food Bank & Resource Center near Loon Lake, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Michael Cantrell-Smith, 27, loads two bags of food in Christina Battles' truck as he volunteers with the Loon Lake Food Bank on Thursday, April 2, 2020, at Loon Lake Food Bank & Resource Center near Loon Lake, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

A line of cars zigzagged out from the Loon Lake Food Bank & Resource Center on Thursday morning as workers opened trunks to put boxes of much-needed food in waiting cars.

The novel coronavirus pandemic has changed things at the rural food bank over the past few weeks, said manager Liz Bauer.

Normally, families come in once a week and shop like they would at a grocery store, picking out the items they need and chatting with one of the 15 volunteers.

Now, cars line up on Monday and Thursday morning as six volunteers, including Bauer and her husband Mike, box up food. This Thursday, more than 30 cars had been through the food bank in the first 45 minutes since it opened at 8 a.m.

Over the past month, Bauer said at least 20 more people have come to get food every week, in addition to the 300 people Loon Lake Food Bank already served each week.

Rural food banks across Eastern Washington are struggling to keep up with increased need for basic supplies as thousands of people lose their jobs, unable to work during Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order.

“They’re having to cope with that significant influx of new people,” said Drew Meuer, senior vice president of philanthropy at Second Harvest.

Second Harvest partners with food banks across Eastern Washington.

Mike Bauer drives to the Second Harvest Spokane warehouse twice a week with a refrigerated truck to pick up food.

Last week, even that wasn’t enough. One of Second Harvest’s mobile markets brought 250 boxes of food to Loon Lake and more than 100 were picked up in about an hour.

Last Friday 155 families took a food box.

Christine Battles started coming to the food bank last month. As a retail worker, Battles lost her job when her store closed. She lives in a house with her boyfriend near Loon Lake. The couple have seven other families living in houses on the property, she said.

“They’ve been real helpful,” Battles said. “We don’t even have to get out of our car. We don’t worry about, you know, getting anything.”

Many of Loon Lake Food Bank’s regular shoppers are single, elderly people, Liz Bauer said.

They have small Social Security payments each month that barely cover bills like rent, car insurance and utilities, she said.

“They count on us,” Bauer said. “They have no meals if we don’t give it to them.”

Being at risk for serious medical complications if they were to catch COVID-19, many elderly people are scared.

“They’re very grateful for us and they’re trying so hard to do anything to cooperate,” Bauer said.

“Loon Lake is really a critical partner in Stevens County in particular,” added Meuer. “They have built up a substantial facility there, with the ability to handle more food products.”

Loon Lake Food Bank was started 23 years ago out of the back of one couple’s car, Liz Bauer said.

The couple then bought an old gas station and were able to expand little by little with the help of grants, she said. They acquired computers, a freezer and expanded refrigeration space and built a shed for dry food storage.

The food bank gets resources from Northwest Harvest and Rural Resources, as well as Second Harvest. It also does “food recovery” from local grocery stores, taking items stores are no longer able to sell.

That extra space has allowed Loon Lake Food Bank to offer a wider variety of options than smaller food banks, Bauer said.

“We get people coming clear from Newport,” she said. “We have a lot of good food and they get more choices so they would rather use our food bank.”

Over the last month, Liz Bauer completely transitioned the food bank from a place where people could have a bit of normalcy and shop for themselves to a drive-thru, all with fewer volunteers.

Many of Bauer’s volunteers are older or have underlying health conditions, and don’t feel safe being out in public, she said.

She is retired after 25 years of running a day care in Cle Elum, Washington.

“She has to have something to do,” Mike Bauer said. “She had a day care for years and she was the same way. When she does something it’s 100% or it’s not at all.”

The Bauers have ramped up work through the pandemic and plan to continue despite the virus touching their family. Bauer’s son, Jeremy, called Thursday morning to tell his parents that a member of his fiancé’s family died from COVID-19 in Snohomish County.

While the virus has spread quickly in more populated counties, Stevens County had just four cases as of Tuesday. The community was a bit slow to be worried about the virus, Bauer said.

“We’re seeing an increasing awareness,” Bauer said. “I’m putting up flyers with any new information.”

Bauer and her husband have been working about 50 hours a week at the food bank over the past month. The few volunteers she has left have been working about half that. All have been self-isolating, only leaving home to go volunteer.

Michael Cantrell-Smith, 27, used to get food from the food bank.

“I felt like I’m just getting food for free,” he said. “So I got to get in here and help them out. I’m young, able hands. Here to do some blessed work and help the good people.”

He has been picking up extra volunteer shifts since the pandemic ramped up last month, Cantrell-Smith said.

“We’ll get new people, probably every day,” he said. “I see people getting laid off all over the place. My stepdad got laid off because of this.”

As one of the food bank’s youngest volunteers, Cantrell-Smith said he hopes more people his age will start to volunteer during this time of increased need.

“They’re going to need an influx of hands or these organizations are going to close,” he said.

At Second Harvest, Meuer said a lack of volunteers has been a problem for many food banks. Often volunteers are retirees who have a bit more time on their hands, but are also at higher risk for serious complications if they were to contract COVID-19.

A flood of requests has come in over the past few weeks for additional aid from Second Harvest, so the organization is “having to prioritize existing partners,” Meuer said. “I’ve just never seen anything like this before – the sudden and explosive increase in need across the state.”

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