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‘It gives us food when we don’t have money’: Work begins to expand Second Harvest

Electricians walk through the demolished offices in the old Stoneway Electric Supply building at 402 N. Iron Bridge Way Monday, Feb. 3, 2020 after the interior was torn out by donated labor. The building is being remodeled to house the Wolff Family Child Hunger Solution Center, which will store food for supplemental food programs for school age kids. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Electricians walk through the demolished offices in the old Stoneway Electric Supply building at 402 N. Iron Bridge Way Monday, Feb. 3, 2020 after the interior was torn out by donated labor. The building is being remodeled to house the Wolff Family Child Hunger Solution Center, which will store food for supplemental food programs for school age kids. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Despite piles of blueprints covering Paul Shelton’s makeshift desk in the Stoneway Electric building, his attention was focused on a scrap of loose-leaf paper. On it was scrawled “Brett,” along with a seven-digit phone number. Shelton, the owner of Construction Management & Forensics, held it up.

“This piece of paper is worth $35,000,” Shelton said.

That was the approximate cost of hiring someone to do the plumbing on a project that will expand Second Harvest so the nonprofit can feed more people through its Bite2Go program, which provides “snack packs” of nonperishables for kids in need of food over the weekend.

On Monday, the same day Laborers International Union of North America Local 238 began demolition, the plumbers who had committed to providing labor for Second Harvest food bank’s new location were forced to back out because of a scheduling conflict.

But when Shelton relayed the turn of events to the Local 238 crew, one of them jotted down his brother’s contact information and handed it over. Once that phone call was made, Plumbing Union Local 44 was ready to step in and complete the work.

Shelton said it’s all about the community coming together to combat hunger.

Professionals from 17 companies are donating their time, labor and expertise to the effort. Many of them are doing so in addition to working their full-time jobs. Jack Tortorici, LIUNA Local 238 business representative, said being on-site is a change of pace, since he’s acclimated to life behind the desk.

“Yesterday I was a little stiff, shaking some rust out of the old joints, but yeah, it feels good to actually be at work,” Tortorici said.

Tortorici describes himself as a family man, and he said most of the workers on this project have families, a driving force behind their sledgehammers.

“It’s absolutely horrifying to me that children like my children would go without a meal,” Tortorici said. “It’s absolutely heart-wrenching.”

Richard Bisbee’s three children – all students at Lidgerwood Elementary – participate in the Bite2Go program. Despite being a co-owner at Platinum Rose Tattoo Studio on Argonne Road, the budget can be tight and assistance makes his income as a single father stretch further. His kids love the snacks – jerky sticks, cans of ravioli and more – and he recalls his kids pouring the shelf-stable milk into their cereal.

“They like getting the bag,” Bisbee said. “They feel like they got their little rations. It’s cute.”

Bisbee thought Bite2Go was something the school provided for all students, and it’s no wonder. Lidgerwood has 120 kids enrolled in the program – 28% of the student body – second only to Trent Elementary School with 124.

Counselors who suspect students are dealing with food insecurity alert Second Harvest, said Julie Humphreys, the nonprofit’s spokeswoman. Nearly 6,000 students receive Bite2Go every weekend in Spokane, the Tri-Cities, Walla Walla, rural Washington and North Idaho. In Spokane alone, 4,144 students a week take home a bag on Fridays.

To avoid stigma, the students pick up the bags after dismissal, but Martha Schafer, Lidgerwood counselor, said most kids are excited. A few first- and second-graders spoke with her about what the food means.

“One said that it helps because, ‘Sometimes we don’t get much food, and we need it for the weekend,’ ” Schaefer said. “Another student said, ‘I’m pretty grateful, otherwise I would go hungry without Bite2Go.’ And another kid said she thinks it’s really good: ‘It gives us food when we don’t have money.’ ”

Schaefer has worked at Lidgerwood for 14 years, predating the 11-year program, and she said teachers used to worry about whether the kids were getting enough food.

Volunteers assembling Bite2Go packs work in the same space as those sorting produce for the food bank and meal service distribution, but the new building – to be named the Wolff Family Child Hunger Solution Center – will change that. Volunteers are not an issue for Second Harvest; space is the most precious commodity.

About 500 volunteers a year assemble Bite2Go or sort produce, and this effort is perfectly represented by “The Mixed Nuts,” a group of around 40 people with the average age of 75 that sorts produce every Tuesday and Thursday between 1 and 4 p.m. On any given shift, around 20 show up.

At around 12:30 p.m. Tuesday, about 20 volunteers socialized over coffee in the volunteer area, readying to sort pears. One man joked they take three-hour breaks. Bruce Rogers, 86, is the ringleader. Within reach is the horn he blows to announce the shift’s start. Also on the table is a clipping from The Spokesman-Review: Mary Kay Jones’ obituary, a Mixed Nut who passed away Jan. 26.

The volunteers created their own tight-knit community, and the new building will allow that community to expand. Though Second Harvest is not a food bank, it distributes to food banks and meal centers over the region, feeding 55,000 people a week with 2.5 million pounds of food a month. In his 25 years of volunteering, the quality and quantity of the food has improved. Rogers has only come along for one distribution, to a church in Hayden.

“The people were just lined up around the block,” Rogers said. “It was amazing.”

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