Kay Porta, who helped start what became Second Harvest food bank, died April 15 of pneumonia. She was 96.
Friends remember Porta as someone who noticed people in need and determined a way to help them.
In 1971, Porta was working for the Department of Social and Health Services. The number of families in need of food but ineligible for food stamps and other government assistance was growing.
“If old Mother Hubbard were to go to the cupboards in many Spokane low-income homes, she would find them almost bare,” Porta said in a 1971 interview with The Spokesman-Review.
So Porta got together with community organizers including church leaders, the Red Cross, student groups, and neighborhood centers to start one of Washington’s first food banks.
“When she saw a need she would just jump in and do it,” said Carol Martin, Porta’s oldest daughter.
Porta worked at the Department of Social and Health Services for over 25 years, Martin said. She did a whole host of things including licensing childcare facilities and foster homes.
On one occasion, Martin remembers Porta noticing that some of her foster parents were struggling so she put together an evening support group, even though that meant spending the evening away from her family.
“They could all get together so they would have this group and they could all help each other as foster parents,” Martin said. “She liked being able to meet the need of people who needed help.”
Porta’s youngest child, Connie Porta, said she once asked her mom how she continued to do such a “tough” and “emotional” job.
Her mother replied: “I just know the kids are better because I’m there.”
The food bank was just another part of that work by helping children and families.
“For her, it was just an extension of her work, of you, know her day job,” said Leslee Duval, Porta’s middle daughter.
The food bank was more successful than Porta could have hoped and shifted toward relying more on volunteers than “social agencies,” as Porta called them in a 1972 newspaper article.
“We must phase out social agency personnel participation in the Food Bank and get a more volunteer-oriented organization,” Porta said.
Porta’s plan worked, and today over 8,000 volunteers a year help provide food for 55,000 hungry people each week.
“Her story, how she brought together those first volunteers to form, at the time what was known at the Spokane Food Bank, to this day is a very inspirational story to new and longtime volunteers who work with us,” said Kathy Hedgecock, Vice President of Philanthropy at Second Harvest.
Porta was ahead of her time, not just by founding the food bank but by being a working mother of three daughters at a time when most women didn’t work outside of the home, her daughter Connie said.
“We had two parents that were active and worked,” Duval said.
Porta and her husband Fred Porta were married for 46 years, until his death in 1997.
When Connie was in the first grade Porta went back to work full time.
“She had a career that she was proud of and yet she still came home and cooked dinner every night,” Duval said.
Not only was Porta a working mother but she had an active social life as an actor in Spokane Civic Theater Productions.
Porta had studied theater at Washington State University and loved to be on stage.
“She acted, directed, and was a board member for the Spokane Civic theater for, I don’t know, decades,” Connie said. “It was a big part of our parents social life in the 60s and 70s.”
Porta’s favorite role she ever played was that of Mad Agnes in The Drunkard, all three daughters said in agreement.
“She could not carry a note and she had to sing through the whole thing” Duval said.
The show was at the historic Davenport Hotel in downtown Spokane. A core group from the civic theater put it on and Porta’s husband Frank even acted, one of their only performances together, Martin said.
“She got to be very very different than the person that people would know her as,” Martin said.
Second Harvest decided to name their legacy society after her, shortly after the food bank’s 40th anniversary.
The Kay Porta Legacy Society honors people who include Second Harvest in their will, estate plan or trust.
Connie Porta said her mother was “very happy and very proud” of what Second Harvest is today.
“She was just very thrilled that something that she started so long ago was still helping people today,” Connie said.
Porta’s daughters say the timing of her death amid the increased need for food banks during the coronavirus pandemic highlights the forethought and important work their mother started.
“Mom would be thrilled to know that still, 50 years later, people can help contribute to the food bank,” Duval said.
The Porta family encourages those who are able to donate to Second Harvest and keep their mother’s project “expanding, growing, and serving the needs of the community.”
To donate to Second Harvest, visit 2-harvest.org/donate/
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to correct Fred Porta’s name.