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News >  Spokane

Fund the gap: Officials call for help to meet demand at food banks

UPDATED: Thu., April 30, 2020

Second Harvest Food Bank volunteers Robert Riedel, left, and Kristen Nicholson, stack and pack dry food items into emergency baskets for the mobile market program to be delivered to the Northeast Youth Center on April 7. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Second Harvest Food Bank volunteers Robert Riedel, left, and Kristen Nicholson, stack and pack dry food items into emergency baskets for the mobile market program to be delivered to the Northeast Youth Center on April 7. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Meeting the surging need for food assistance in Washington state will require “all hands on deck.”

That was the message from state and philanthropic leaders who highlighted Thursday the gaps the state faces in funding food banks as they await federal support.

While an initial infusion in state funding helped support the hungry in April, and federal assistance is expected to land in June, state officials are calling on Washington corporations and residents for help in May.

“Until that federal relief kicks in, there really was a call to the philanthropic sector … to help out as much as we can and be able to fill in that gap,” said Kiran Ahuja, CEO of Philanthropy Northwest.

Last month, the state and philanthropic organizations jointly launched the WA Food Fund, a fundraising effort aimed at supporting food banks across Washington, where lines have roughly doubled in just six weeks.

To date, the fund raised about $3 million, but at least $11 million more is needed through the month of May, leaders said.

Philanthropy Northwest, which is overseeing the fundraising effort, has launched a GoFundMe page to solicit donations from individuals and reached out to corporations and foundations directly for support.

As soon as it receives money, it’s been cutting checks to major food distribution centers, including Second Harvest, which supplies food to 250 food banks and pantries across eastern Washington and North Idaho.

Ahuja is worried that $11 million might not even be enough to fill the gap in May, as the needs assessment continues to evolve. While demand at food banks has already doubled, it’s expected to continue to increase.

“It is changing day by day and week by week,” Ahuja said.

In November 2019, about 850,000 people sought services at a food bank, but as many as 2 million people are expected to go hungry or are at risk of becoming so in the coming months.

Federal support will come from two sources: stabilization dollars will be distributed through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES Act, and through the Department of Agriculture’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. The state will continue to rely on other sources of funding.

“Collectively, we’ll find a way through this,” said Derek Sandison, Director of the Washington State Department of Agriculture, which manages the state’s Emergency Food Assistance Program.

The entire food distribution model has changed, Sandison said. It’s not only more labor-intensive, but relies much more heavily on shelf-stable products and has become increasingly competitive.

At the same time Washington was attempting to buttress its food supply, Oregon was undertaking a similar effort.

“We’re literally in a situation where we’re on the phone competing with grocery chains, and for that matter, other efforts to meet the need for food supplies,” Sandison said.

That increased competition has also led to higher prices.

The state estimates that it needs about $6 million of food per week to meet the increased demand.

Early in the crisis, the effort received $10 million from the state’s supplemental operations budget, authorized by the state legislature as part of the COVID-19 response effort.

That helped fill the funding gap in April, but officials remain concerned about the food supply in May and are looking to the community for support.

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