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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Food banks manage growing need despite supply chain issues, cost inflation

Second Harvest Inland Northwest volunteers, from top left, John Huckabay, Kelsey Bolster, Julie Koch, Katie Sibulsky and Sara Yochum team up Thursday in Spokane to bag some of the 10,000 pounds of carrots of donated by Cal Farms in Oregon.  (Dan Pelle/THESPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Second Harvest Inland Northwest volunteers, from top left, John Huckabay, Kelsey Bolster, Julie Koch, Katie Sibulsky and Sara Yochum team up Thursday in Spokane to bag some of the 10,000 pounds of carrots of donated by Cal Farms in Oregon. (Dan Pelle/THESPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Food banks have tough choices to make as a national supply chain shortage and rising costs have stretched resources in Spokane.

As COVID-19 government programs lapse and more people seek food that is getting more expensive, Eric Williams with Second Harvest said the organization is facing another challenge: growers who have fewer crops to donate after a summer of drought conditions in most of Washington.

“Fertilizer costs and planting costs are crazy right now, and then the drought,” Williams said. “I just take my hat off again to some of the farmers who have gone through droughts yet still managed to help give us a lot of good food. But, you know, the drought had an effect.”

In the past year, meat and dairy costs in particular have risen about 5%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Gas is also more expensive, with Washington drivers on average paying $3.87 per gallon, compared with a year ago when a gallon on average cost $2.76.

Second Harvest, a Spokane-based food distribution center, covers 26 counties, five of which are in North Idaho, said Williams, Second Harvest’s community partnerships director.

Food banks rely on three main sources of product: grocery outlets, local farms and private donations.

Williams said Second Harvest often acts as a middle man. They collect donated items, store and manage them, and then deliver directly to food pantries in the region.

This method has somewhat shielded smaller local pantries like Caritas Outreach Ministries at least from rising gas costs, but these pantries have their own challenges, said Bob Walker, Caritas board member and volunteer.

Since the pandemic, Caritas has seen more customers than ever, Walker said. In September they served 200 more families than in 2020, and Walker said they expect that number to rise this winter as rent, gas and food prices continue to go up.

“People who need what we offer today more than likely won’t need it for the rest of their life. A large percentage only need it for a short percentage of time, and there’s usually a particular reason they’re coming in,” Walker said. “Every income you could think of comes in to the food pantry.”

Ballooning costs have also affected smaller, rural-centered food services, said Olivia Moses, co-founder of Food Not Bombs on the Palouse.

“We’re delivery, so especially in the winter those who live out in rural areas, they really call upon us in the winter,” Moses said. “You can see how with gas prices now, the cost of showing rural solidarity is increasing.”

Moses said they also have experienced shortages amid an increase in their customer base. Before the pandemic the volunteers with Food Not Bombs would get four to six carts full of food from local growers, Moses said.

“Now I would say we’re lucky to walk out of there will two carts full, and it’s been like that the better part of a year … It feels there’s less to go around,” Moses said.

Moses said Food Not Bombs has also seen more people since 2019, when they were serving about 100 families a month. In 2020 that number jumped to nearly 400, and then in October the nonprofit were assisting 450 people, Moses said.

Seeing more customers is a double-edged sword, Walker said. On one hand it means people have become more comfortable seeking help, but it also highlights need for more resources.

Between a pandemic, drought and inflation, Moses said she believed it boiled down to “frankly, a food bank system that was not prepared for this.”

As need increases, expansion is the next step for some.

Second Harvest recently opened a facility focusing entirely on youth food insecurity, Williams said, and they have also discussed expanding in general.

Food Not Bombs is also working to move into a permanent facility so they can have space for their nonfood items like toilet paper and clothing, Moses said, but that has been a slow-moving process.

Caritas Outreach Ministries also recently moved into a bigger space in northeast Spokane, Walker said.

“It’s only about half as big as it should be. It’s tight but it really works,” Walker said.

Feeding America, which collects data from food banks across the U.S., reported in Spokane County about 64,810 people were food insecure in 2019, or 12.8% of the population.

In Spokane County, Feeding America projected the number of food insecure people grew to 13.8% in 2021.

Nationally, Feeding America projected the pandemic has made the problem worse and expected that 1 in 6 adults will seek assistance at food banks in the next year.

That number is higher for children, and several percentage points higher for children from Black, Indigenous and Asian/Pacific Islander communities, according to data the Spokane County Regional Health District.

Washington state overall has a 7% food insufficiency rate, according to the Food Research & Action Council food insufficiency rate map for Washington.

As with most industries, the pandemic only worsened existing shortcomings in the food bank system, Moses said.

“There’s no consistency anymore except that everyone’s hurting and there certainly are not enough avenues they can address food insecurity,” Moses said.

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