Volunteers of America and Farmer Frog helpers load food stuffs Friday during a drive-thru distribution at Everett Mall. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Volunteers of America and Farmer Frog helpers load food stuffs Friday during a drive-thru distribution at Everett Mall. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Drive-through food pantry packs Everett Mall parking lot

“The need is just overwhelming,” VOA volunteer said as hundreds of cars lined up for groceries.

In old sedans and late models, SUVs and compacts, hundreds of drivers waited in four long lines Friday afternoon at the Everett Mall. The traffic jam had nothing to do with holiday shoppers jockeying for parking. It was all about need as people waited for groceries at a drive-through food pantry.

It was the second of two food distribution events at the mall this month organized by Volunteers of America Western Washington in partnership with Farmer Frog, a Woodinville-based nonprofit.

“The need is just overwhelming,” said Stephen Kennedy, a volunteer at the event and a VOA board member. “I think we have a lot of people who have never been in a line like this before.”

At the first drive-through pantry Nov. 13, more than 2,000 boxes of food were given to 340 families — 1,638 adults and children, said Cory Armstrong-Hoss, Volunteers of America Western Washington’s director of communications and marketing.

Shortly after Friday’s 2 p.m. start time, VOA Project Manager Dave Jordan said that in comparison with the previous week, he was seeing three times as many cars at that hour. “I am overwhelmed,” said Jordan as VOA staff and volunteers worked at a frenetic pace.

They unloaded hundreds of boxes from two 53-foot trailers, and unboxed frozen turkeys from another truck, as families waited in their cars for groceries less than a week before Thanksgiving.

“Drive-throughs are great, we can do a huge volume in a very safe way,” Armstrong-Hoss said. “They stay in their cars, we put boxes in the trunk.”

Rather than counting cars, he said households are counted. “In a sedan, you might have two or three households — a driver and their neighbor or sister,” Armstrong-Hoss said.

Along with boxes of canned vegetables, pasta and other nonperishable foods, people received “fresh boxes” from Farmer Frog, with veggies, eggs, milk and cheese.

Farmer Frog, founded by Zsofia Pasztor, operates a working farm in Woodinville, The group has helped with school gardens, and works to teach kids about the science of growing food. Now, Pasztor is involved with EastWest Food Rescue, another nonprofit. They’ve helped those in need by distributing millions of pounds of fresh food salvaged from farms that lost sales due to the pandemic.

The coronavirus has changed the way food banks hand out groceries, Armstrong-Hoss said. At the VOA’s Everett Food Bank on Broadway, people wait outside where volunteers staff a table. Inside, food bank staff do the “shopping,” with dietary and household needs as a guide.

Volunteers of America is the main distribution organization for the Snohomish County Food Bank Coalition, which includes 18 food banks and a number of food pantries. The VOA has outgrown its storage space on Broadway, and now leases a former Haggen store in Arlington, Armstrong-Hoss said.

The need is way up, but some sources of donated groceries aren’t there this season because of COVID-19 precautions, including food drives normally conducted by local high schools.

In 2019, students from Cascade, Everett and Kamiak high schools collected food and raised cash to provide groceries and gifts for more than 450 families. Most of those helped received at least a week’s worth of food.

Stuff A Bus, a VOA partnership with Everett Transit, provided 8,000 pounds of food and more than $20,000 in donations for food banks last year. That also didn’t happen this year, nor did the March Against Hunger supported by Snohomish County employees. In 2019, the march provided more than $59,000 in cash donations and several thousand pounds of food, totaling 35,000-plus meals.

Without that community help, Volunteers of America is promoting its “Sponsor A Family” program this year.

In September, the agency’s Give Hope campaign focused on three areas of need — “give food, give shelter, give support,” Armstrong-Hoss said.

“The nice thing, we’ve seen a tremendous amount of generosity,” he added.

Julie Muhlstein: jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com

How to help

Volunteers of America Western Washington needs cash donations to support food banks and people to help with its “Sponsor A Family” holiday program. Donate or learn more at: www.voaww.org/holiday-giving-program-2020

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