By Andrew Edwards
A line of people casually chatting, reading and otherwise finding ways to occupy their time extends out the front door and around the side of the building. A woman plays patty cake with two young girls while a bearded young man in a grey wool sweater sits on an old crate and reads about macrobiotics to pass the thirty minutes it takes to gain entry to the Bellingham Food Bank, a 10,000 square foot warehouse where donated food is given to those in need free of charge.
The waiting crowd is composed of a fairly diverse, regular representation of the community in Bellingham, seemingly dispelling a common misconception that only the homeless and those in deep poverty require food aid. On this sunny Wednesday, the people lining up are just as likely to be carrying a smart phone as they are a heavy pack full of their belongings.
“You can’t pigeonhole any one group of people,” said Patrick Egan, a coordinator at the food bank. “60 percent of working age men that come through have jobs. Fifty percent of the people that the food bank helps are children and the elderly. The homeless are about five percent.”
This reality is reflected outside the building, where a bicycle is locked to almost every signpost, people load their hauls into old and new cars and signs on the windows are written in English, Spanish and Russian, all of which can be heard in the waiting crowd.
This food bank typically provides food for around 9,500 people in Whatcom County, said Egan. Lately, however, this number has been steadily increasing.
“We went over 10,000 folks last month,” said Egan. “We’ve never gone over 10,000 before.” Although the average number of people in each household that comes in for assistance has gone down, the overall number of households has increased, implying that a greater number of families are seeking out aid than ever before, for various reasons said Egan.
“Food stamps have been lowered,” said Rosa, a 24-year-old woman waiting in line, who was referred here by the welfare office after the recent state budget cuts. “It’s just the economy.”
After clearing the line and passing through the entrance, the guests are greeted by a tall stack of empty produce crates which they can use to carry their provisions. Then, after checking in with the front desk, they are given a tag with the number of people in their household and a symbol for any special dietary requirements, like a V for vegetarian or L for lactose intolerant.
The interior of the food bank is almost entirely bare, with cement floors and high ceilings, except for a line of folding tables running the length of the room, and a cache of pallets and heavy sacks behind them. The distribution process goes a bit like a factory line, with a volunteer assigned to each specific table where certain products are handed out. At the end of the tables there is a row of shelves holding toilet paper and diapers as well as a large selection of bread.
Everything available here is donated, about half from local bakeries and grocery stores, and the other half comes from food drives and community donations, said Egan. Every morning, the food bank sends out a truck to each of their donor businesses, and a few small farms, and picks up a load for the week.
While staples like milk and eggs are always present, the selection of what is available is constantly changing, depending on what is donated by individuals, so clients here are just as likely to get organic plantains as they are generic canned food. It is always a surprising experience for both regulars and first timers who come with a certain expectation of what they are going to receive.
“Some of it’s probably not food I would pick up,” said Rosa. Although, she said, what she receives is enough to meet her needs.
Just as there are people from greatly different backgrounds coming receive help with food, the reasons for this are equally varied, although they are mostly tied together with the common thread of economic hardship.
“I own some stock,” said an older man pushing a wheeled suitcase who wishes to remain unidentified, but, “the interest on my money is zero.” While his investments used to be enough to cover him in retirement, he said, he is now living with one other person in a garage without heat or running water.
Not everyone here today is under such difficult circumstances however, even some who might seem relatively well-off are experiencing difficulty with food costs. Many students have a hard time working while taking classes and utilize the service provided by the food bank.
A big part of the recent increase in clientele is composed of young people, said Sylvia Gralewski, a food bank volunteer for over 10 years, and many of them are regulars.
“For me it’s based off how many hours I get each week,” said Jon, a student at Western Washington University. While it is important to be able to buy food, he said, “I’ve gotta pay bills first.”
“I just use it when I really need to,” said Kellie Markell, a 29-year-old single mother of two, who is currently attending Bellingham Technical College. “One of the huge factors is being a student.
Markell, who hopes to transfer to a university after finishing at the technical college, has been coming to this food bank off and on for about five years. “Hopefully the wage I’ll be earning out of school will be enough to sustain my family,” she said.
Back outside the building, volunteers help the elderly out their cars with their loads, and every so often a para-transit van stops by to unload and pick up people in wheelchairs. Most who leave give a “thank you” to the volunteers before setting off and it is almost universally returned with “you’re welcome.”
While poverty is generally regarded as an unseen problem, the Bellingham Food Bank, entirely funded by private donations, acts as an example of how a community chooses to accept and alleviate it.