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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
News >  Pacific NW

Rural food banks pinched by shortage as Second Harvest cuts deliveries

Dec. 14, 2022 Updated Fri., Dec. 16, 2022 at 7:13 p.m.

“I wouldn’t have spent some $7,000 on these new freezers,” Bill Stuber of the Chewelah Food Bank says Thursday. Now with more than one-quarter of donations cut by Second Harvest of Spokane, these freezers will depend on help from others.  (Brian Plonka/For The Spokesman-Review)
“I wouldn’t have spent some $7,000 on these new freezers,” Bill Stuber of the Chewelah Food Bank says Thursday. Now with more than one-quarter of donations cut by Second Harvest of Spokane, these freezers will depend on help from others. (Brian Plonka/For The Spokesman-Review) Buy this photo

Food shortages caused by inflation, lower crop yields and higher demand have led the Inland Northwest’s largest food bank distributor to stop deliveries to more than 80 food banks across the region.

Local pantries, especially those in remote rural areas, are feeling the effects the most.

“This couldn’t have happened at a worse time right before the holidays,” said Rena Shawver, director of Okanogan County Community Action Council, which serves as a liaison to nine food banks.

In 2021, Second Harvest delivered 511,000 pounds of food to the county. Shawver estimates they are now losing $100,000 of groceries a month.

Second Harvest supplied most of their frozen protein and fresh produce – the foods people most rely on for nutrition. About 25% of the population in Okanogan County uses food banks, Shawver said.

The action council received a phone call from Second Harvest on Nov. 29, notifying them that deliveries would stop the following day.

“We were caught off guard and by surprise,” Shawver said.

Second Harvest supplies 280 food pantries and meal sites in North Idaho and Central and Eastern Washington.

Eric Williams, community partnership director for Second Harvest, said the food distribution center emailed all of its partners in September, warning that disruptions were likely coming. Then the crisis “hit hard and fast” during the second half of November.

“It has gotten really difficult to get food, and the food that you can get is really expensive,” Williams said.

So, they made the difficult decision to suspend their delivery service for at least the months of December and January.

“That affects lives, we understand that,” Williams said. “We are doing everything we can to get ahold of more food.”

Williams said it was costing about one thousand dollars a trip to fuel their semitrucks – and because of the food reductions, the trailers were only about a third full.

Although deliveries have stopped, food distribution will continue for those partners who already pick up their food directly from Second Harvest’s centers in Spokane and Pasco, but they will not be able to accommodate any new clients.

While this largely impacts rural areas, some rural partners already pick up their own food, Williams said.

He also said Second Harvest’s other programs, such as the mobile markets that deliver food to rural and underserved areas by buses, will continue.

After Second Harvest, many pantries rely on contributions from Northwest Harvest, which supports more than 400 food banks and programs in all 39 counties across Washington. Jeanie Chunn, director of community engagement for Northwest Harvest, said they have also been affected by inflation and supply chain issues, but they do not foresee stopping any deliveries.

Inflation has led not only to higher food prices for pantries, but it has increased the number of people who need the pantries.

“Kind of a double-whammy,” said Stephani Smith, director of Northeast Washington Hunger Coalition. The coalition works with 17 pantries in Ferry, Stevens and Pend Oreille counties.

Outlying towns have the greatest needs and will be the most impacted, she said.

Second Harvest represented about 35% of the stock at Northport Food Pantry, which serves about 200 families near the Canadian border, said Ella Peone, who runs the pantry.

More people are using the pantry since the only grocery store in Northport closed this summer, she said. Those who can’t drive 35 miles to Colville now rely on the pantry.

Lael Duncan, a former director of Okanogan County’s action council who recently retired, said Second Harvest should have given more notice.

“I’m concerned about rural communities bearing the brunt of this when bigger cities have so many more resources,” she said.

Bill Struber, floor manager of the Chewelah Food Bank, called it a failure of communication.

“If we’d have known,” Struber said, “we would have tried to ration more.” He said donations of meat have shrunk to nothing.

Smith said some people didn’t believe or pay attention to Second Harvest’s warnings that supplies were dwindling.

“They have been feeding people for decades,” she said. “This isn’t some unfeeling executive entity. These are people whose hearts are in the right places. They’re trying to be part of the solution and they’ve had to make really hard choices.”

Smith said this might force people to work more locally toward hunger solutions rather than depending on a big outside organization.

In Okanogan County, the community has rallied together since the announcement, Shawver said. They have raised enough money and donations to get through the holidays, but this will not be sustainable month after month. The action council is raising awareness, starting more food donation sites and working with local grocers to increase food recovery.

Shawver expressed frustration with the food distribution system and said that the legislature and big agriculture should work toward a solution. “We live in an area in the United States where there is plenty of food being produced, but the systems are broken. To be able to get food into our community on a regular basis when we are experiencing shortages has been challenging.”

Williams said Second Harvest is working hard to identify more food and funding sources in order to resume deliveries. The organization hired a new staffer last week whose only job will be to find more food, and employees in other departments have been instructed to spend half of their time on it.

He encourages people to donate food or money to either Second Harvest or their local food bank.

“The point is to feed people, and it’s way less concerning how,” he said.

Editor’s note: This story was updated on Dec. 16, 2022, to reflect that Northport’s grocery store had closed. The original version of the article named the wrong town.

James Hanlon's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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