The number of Washington residents experiencing food insecurity more than doubled after the COVID-19 pandemic shattered the economy.
And the worst may be yet to come.
As the economy struggles to recover from an ongoing pandemic, government and nonprofit leaders warned at a news conference Thursday that the surge in reliance on food banks is expected to continue into 2021.
“We haven’t really turned a corner, either on the virus or the economic recovery,” said Katie Rains, a food assistance specialist with the Washington State Department of Agriculture.
An unprecedented surge in people lining up at food distribution centers will continue unabated. Peak demand is expected between October and December, officials said, as people deplete the last of their savings and personal assets.
Second Harvest, a nonprofit that supplies food to nearly 200 pantries and providers across the Inland Northwest, has seen historic numbers of people at its distribution events – at least twice as many as usual, according to president and CEO Jason Clark.
“The need has just been staggering,” Clark said.
Many providers also are awed by the number of first-time users of food-assistance services created by the recent economic turmoil.
The Spokane Regional Health District conducted a survey at a large distribution event held by Second Harvest this year. Of the 785 cars lined up, 314 families had never been to a food bank before, it found.
Leaders in Washington are waiting on Congress for another round of coronavirus relief that could ease the strain in the coming months. They are also imploring Washingtonians to donate to the WA Food Fund, which was established in the early days of the pandemic and continues to support food distribution efforts during all-time high demand.
Meanwhile, nonprofits that distribute food to the hungry are preparing to continue increased distribution through the winter, which is a logistical challenge for organizations that have already been forced to reimagine the way they provide services in the wake of the pandemic.
Prior to the pandemic, the food-assistance system in Washington placed a greater emphasis on access to fresh food and more choices.
But the COVID-19 pandemic forced providers to take additional safety precautions and implement social distancing. Providers discarded the food-pantry model and transitioned to labor-intensive, prepacked distribution events.
Simultaneously, the system’s supply chain was almost completely severed. Restaurants, which donate excess supply to food distributors, abruptly closed. Grocers and retailers, major contributors to the system, had little extra to give as panicked customers picked shelves clean.
“Unfortunately, the pandemic more or less turned our food-security system on its head,” said Derek Sandison, director of the state Department of Agriculture.
The economic recovery has been uneven and left behind those with low wages before the pandemic hit, according to Kiran Ahuja, CEO of Philanthropy Northwest, the nonprofit overseeing the WA Food Fund.
Launched in the weeks after the pandemic sparked long lines at food distribution centers, the WA Food fund has raised $12 million from more than 9,000 individuals and more than 60 institutions.
Initially, Philanthropy Northwest expected its services would be necessary for three or four months. But “as we’re seeing, this pandemic is here for a while, certainly until we have a suitable vaccine in place,” Ahuja said.
The WA Food Fund supports the three main providers of food to pantries and organizations across Washington – Second Harvest, Food Lifeline and Northwest Harvest.
State leaders are also looking to the federal government for help.
With the assistance from the The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act nearly depleted, Sandison indicated a new round of funding is sorely needed. He is “hopeful that Congress will act to provide additional resources to the states for food security and other important recovery efforts.”
Without that support, Sandison said, “we’ll find a way to make it work,” but “life would be much simpler if we had an additional round of state support from Congress.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.