EVERETT — A new community center on Casino Road was a handful of ceiling tiles and a fire alarm inspection away from its grand opening.
Then the coronavirus pandemic hit.
The staff was prepared to leave the building vacant for months, said Sara Boyle, who led the center’s planning and development.
That’s when the Volunteers of America pop-up food bank at Bible Baptist Church stopped operating, leaving a desert of food availability in south Everett, just as many families lost their source of income. So the center opened it’s doors — not as a community center, but as a temporary food pantry.
“It just so happened that the need and availability of space happened at the exact same time,” Boyle said.
The Casino Road Food Pantry, and other food banks throughout Snohomish County, are seeing a surge of first-time customers on top of familiar faces as pandemic-induced financial stress amasses.
Roughly 88,000 workers in Snohomish County filed for financial assistance in the first half of March as a result of losing their job, being furloughed or having hours reduced.
On Tuesday, families filtered through the Casino Road Food Pantry’s socially-distanced pickup system. Customers parked or walked through the center’s lot and picked up a number from a table set up at a conference room door.
Volunteers of America employee Cory Armstrong-Hoss manned the table, passing out numbers and cracking jokes with returnees.
“End up making that pasta last week?” he asked one customer.
Most people had their hoods up, avoided the drizzle and waited under the building’s overhang. Some wore brightly patterned cloth face masks or disposable surgical masks.
There are no requirements to use the pantry — not even an ID. Boyle said that’s to ensure people who are undocumented can get food.
Customers grabbed pre-packed bags of bread, meat, canned goods and other non-perishables, instead of the VOA’s normal food bank system where people shop for their food grocery store-style.
Yasmin and her husband moved to the United States from Mexico four months ago. She asked that her last name not be published.
“We were just starting to get settled when this happened,” she said in Spanish.
Her husband, a commercial painter, is out of work. She has a 1-year-old.
An estimated 80 percent of the clientele for Boyle’s nonprofit, Connect Casino Road, are undocumented immigrants, she said. That means they’re not eligible for unemployment or stimulus checks. Many undocumented families were among the first to lose their jobs due to the pandemic, Boyle said.
“There’s no plan B for a lot of these families that don’t have income,” she said.
Elizabeth Hernandez, a volunteer and a longtime resident of Casino Road, said unemployment is widespread in her neighborhood.
“Nobody has work,” she said in Spanish.
She worries for single mothers like herself, some with three or four kids.
Aside from the food pantry, there’s only a handful of organizations south of 41st street providing meal support for families, Boyle said. Another VOA pop-up food bank at Bible Baptist Church on Casino Road had to shut down after the bulk of its volunteers, mainly retirees, could no longer risk outings during the pandemic.
Nancy, a client, also asked that her last name not be published. Her husband works in construction and is out of a job. The pantry has become a lifeline for their family.
“This is very, very helpful,” Nancy said in Spanish.
She has five kids who range in age from 10 years old to 1½-year-old twins. The younger kids don’t understand what’s going on, Nancy said. Her daughter, 5, cries because she doesn’t understand why she can’t go back to school. Having all five at home “is craziness,” Nancy said. She’s trying to mimic a school schedule with them, but she’s also trying to juggle her own English classes.
Several children accompanied their parents to the pantry Tuesday, crouching against the walls and playing iPhone games to pass the time.
With their new daytime freedom, school-age children suddenly make up a larger part of food bank volunteers than ever before, VOA employee David Jordan said.
This week, the pantry served 138 households. That’s up from 75 on its first day, March 31.
A need for food is visible all over Snohomish County.
In Lynnwood, food bank director Alissa Jones said demand for their services has more than doubled. Last week, they gave food to 682 households between their two days of operation. Over 40% of them were first-timers.
Like on Casino Road, the Lynnwood Food Bank’s core group of volunteers were mostly senior citizens, who are now staying home. That gap has largely been replaced by students or people who aren’t working, Jones said.
Soledad Geminiano is both a customer and a volunteer at the Lynnwood Food Bank. Her employer, a manufacturing plant in Mukilteo, closed over a month ago.
“I had to do something,” she said.
So she started volunteering at the food bank twice a week, working up to seven hours each Wednesday and Friday. Many of the families she’s serving are in a similar situation, Geminiano said.
“We don’t have nothing out there,” she said, her voice cracking over the phone. “But when we come here it’s beautiful, it’s a big family here.”
To keep their customers and volunteers safe, the Lynnwood operation is employing a ferry-line system. Cars park in rows and wait for volunteers to pull up and take their “orders.” A volunteer then fills up a cart with food and packs the trunk.
“It’s been working really well so far,” Jones said.
Edmonds Food Bank board member Dick Van Hollebeke said their customers have also doubled since the beginning of the pandemic. Last year, he said they saw about 225 families per week.
By Thursday last week, with one pop-up to go on Friday, they had already served 414 families.
Most of the families have four members, Van Hollebeke said, bringing the total to about 1,650 people.
“So many people who never ever thought they’d have to use a food bank are without resources,” he said.
The Edmonds Food Bank also overhauled their system, from a shopping model to pre-scheduled pickups. Customers can choose what they’d like from a menu, in English, Spanish or Russian, then call to set up a time to pick up their bags.
The food bank normally runs with about 150 volunteers. That’s down to 30 or 40, Van Hollebeke said, since many of their regulars fall into the “at risk” category.
Volunteers of America manages 21 food banks throughout the county, including the Everett Food Bank on Broadway. Director of Hunger Prevention Services Chris Hatch said traffic has been a rollercoaster.
The number of customers has been trending upward, but last week was slow at many locations. Hatch said she thinks it’s because stimulus checks started rolling out.
The numbers are rising again, she said.
The way food banks get supplies is also changing, Snohomish County Food Bank Coalition president Elizabeth Grant said. It’s harder to buy large pallets of nonperishables.
“We’re all confident we can keep providing, it’s just a matter of finding the bigger buys,” she said.
Grant also runs the Snohomish Food Bank. Out of an abundance of caution, she stopped taking donations from private homes.
“When I’m telling people this, it feels crazy, having to say no to this wonderful gift,” she said.
Instead, she’s relying more on cash donations to purchase food at stores.
Even with a huge increase in people coming to food banks throughout Snohomish County, Grant believes more people need help, but aren’t asking for it.
“If you’re temporarily out of work, some people are thinking that it’s not for them,” Grant said. “Well, it’s for everyone. I just really want people to know — come on in.”
Julia-Grace Sanders: 425-339-3439; firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Casino Road Food Pantry is open Tuesdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. For information on how to donate to the pantry or other Volunteers of America-run food banks in Snohomish County, visit voaww.org/donate.
For information on the Lynnwood Food Bank, visit lynnwoodfoodbank.org.
For information on the Edmonds Food Bank, visit edmondsfoodbank.org.