By The Herald Editorial Board
Most of us are now keeping closer tabs on price tags while we’re at the grocery store, even as we prepare for the grand family feast of Thanksgiving that’s just a week away.
That’s an even greater chore for those who must rely on SNAP cards to feed families. And it’s been a growing concern for those who run food banks in Snohomish County.
While food banks rely on the generous donations from individuals as well as state and federal programs that distribute commodities, such as dairy and meat products, food banks count on monetary contributions, too, which they can use to purchase perishable foods, such as meat and dairy, fruit and vegetables and frozen foods.
The increase in the price of meat — ground beef in particular — has meant a change for what some food bank clients are seeing in their food bank boxes, said Elizabeth Grant, director of the Snohomish Community Food Bank.
“In years past we were able to offer ground beef as an option, but that’s one thing now that’s off the menu,” she said about the staple. It’s popular, easy to prepare and can be used in numerous recipes. But at the moment, it’s not a good buy. The food bank can buy twice as much ground turkey, pound for pound, as it can ground beef.
“I’m a cheapskate,” said Grant, “which is handy for the director of a nonprofit.”
And for food bank programs, it’s more than inflation’s effects on the costs of food, said Chris Hatch, senior director for hunger prevention services at the Volunteers of America, Western Washington, which operates food banks in Everett and Sultan, as well as “pop-up” distribution sites. The VOA often has to rent trucks for distribution, which adds the costs of vehicle rental and fuel to its bottom line.
And to inflation add a recent increase in demand.
A recent joint study by the University of Washington and Washington State University found food insecurity in the state at 27 percent, with 15 percent of those polled reporting “very low” food security and 12 percent reporting “low” food security. A total of 61 percent reported that the increase in food prices was the top barrier to food security; and 43 percent reported their diets had suffered during the pandemic.
About 1 in 10 state residents struggle consistently with hunger, reports Northwest Harvest; and 1 in 6 children in the state live in households that face challenges in providing enough food. At the same time, Washington state ranks 10th in the country for overall wealth, but 34th among states for food insecurity.
And the need is increasing, and not just because it’s that time of year, both Hatch and Grant said.
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, she said, the Snohomish food bank served a weekly average of about 170 families and individuals. Those visits dropped to about 136 families a week during the pandemic, as more were able to benefit from federal pandemic relief programs, such as stimulus checks, supplemental unemployment benefits and an expanded child tax credit.
But most have now spent their stimulus, the extra jobless benefits ended in September and — unless extended in the federal Build Back Better spending plan now before Congress — the expanded child tax credit payments will end soon as well.
After a respite, food bank visits are growing again, both said.
“All of the sudden, we’re back up to 170 and rising just like that. I’m calling my milk man to increase our order,” she said. For the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, Grant said the Snohomish food bank is expecting to serve about 240 families.
So, what most food banks need now are monetary donations and volunteers.
“Money is the most helpful,” Hatch said of the VOA programs. “We don’t know week to week what we might be short of, so we can use that to purchase what we need. Cash is king.”
Monetary donations also allow flexibility to meet specific needs, Hatch said, such as the dietary customs of an increasing culturally diverse community and specialized meals with self-contained warming packs that can be distributed to those in the homeless community.
Likewise, the Snohomish food bank actually is well stocked with canned goods and other non-perishables, Grant said; to the point that storage space is at a premium. Cash and checks, by contrast, don’t take up much space and allow food banks greater flexibility.
The pandemic, at the same time, has created an increased need for volunteers, Grant and Hatch said.
Safety protocols to limit contact and prevent the spread of the virus, have meant that food bank clients can’t be allowed inside the facility to choose their own groceries. That’s made the process more labor intensive as orders are taken and food is boxed up and brought to clients in waiting vehicles, Grant said.
Our gifts to others in our community — whether its food, money or volunteer time — can make Thanksgiving and the coming holidays happier for all.
For a list of community food banks and food distribution programs in Snohomish County, their hours of operation, contacts and how to donate or volunteer, go to www.snohomishcountyfoodbankcoalition.org/.
Cash is king
Food banks prefer donations by cash and check because:
• Cash is more cost-effective for food banks, which can obtain food from suppliers, farmers and others at lower cost, and can select the particular food and other items that are most in need;
• It allows the food banks to purchase fresh produce, meat and other perishable items that provide a healthier diet for food bank clients;
• It helps limit food waste, by allowing the food banks to take advantage of available surplus from restaurants, stores and suppliers; and
• For the donor, it’s easier to keep track and take advantage of the tax deduction. Even if you don’t itemize deductions, taxpayers can deduct up to $300 of qualified cash donations to tax-exempt public charities for 2021.