Shortly after 10 a.m. on a Thursday morning in December, a handful of people form a line on the sidewalk outside 120 W Wishkah St. A folding table and a bulletin board barricade the entrance to the building. A paper sign reads, “Due to supply shortages, housed individuals will only be able to get food twice a month.”
Inside the building volunteers bustle. A man wearing a folded cloth mask and sunglasses slides a box of food across the table to Jerry Nelson, a former logger of 35 years, who, after receiving the supplies, compared feeding all of the kids in his house to “mission impossible.”
Nelson said he never came to the food bank until recently.
“I never really frequented it until I needed it,” Nelson said.
Since Kimberly Gilbert started her position as coordinator of the Salvation Army food pantry in Aberdeen roughly one year ago, the center has tripled the amount of people it serves, jumping from 200 to 300 up to 700 to 900 people per month currently. Many of those are newcomers like Nelson. In August, for example, the center fed 100 new faces.
“We keep everything electronically and we have records for the last 20 years, and we’re seeing people that we’ve never seen before,” Gilbert said.
The Salvation Army food pantry in Aberdeen is not alone in its added pressures. Across the country, the pandemic powered a surge in demand for food assistance. This has been sustained in 2022 by inflating grocery prices and pinched pockets. As the need for hunger relief continues to grow in Grays Harbor, hunger relief agencies, food banks and pantries are adapting to this new, hungrier reality.
Food supply still lagging
Feeding America, a national hunger relief nonprofit, makes a distinction between food banks and food pantries, even though the two are often used interchangeably in common language. Food banks store the food in warehouses and act as a distribution center to pantries, the frontline groups who give food to communities directly. Both exist in Grays Harbor.
Coastal Harvest is a nonprofit that gathers and distributes food to local pantries and feeding programs. Based out of Hoquiam, the agency provides food for 60 frontline groups in seven counties, including to most food pantries in Grays Harbor. Coastal Harvest Executive Director Brent Hunter said some food pantries have seen their demand more than double recently — a faster rate than when the pandemic sent many seeking food assistance.
One year after the pandemic began, food banks across the country were feeding 55% more people than they were pre-pandemic, according to Feeding America.
While not to the same extent, the Hoquiam Food and Clothing Bank followed that trend, according to Director Linda Borgh. The pantry at 720 K St. gave out 230,000 pounds of food in 2019 and 265,000 pounds once the pandemic hit in 2020.
But at the same time, Hunter said, local, state and federal governments — namely the Department of Agriculture’s Emergency Food Assistance Program — provided relief funds for food manufacturers to flood banks with supplies in order to meet the increased demand.
Food Lifeline, another nonprofit that distributes food to pantries in Grays Harbor, has dealt with a fluctuating food supply over the last several years. Before the pandemic, the agency wrote in a recent newsletter, it consistently had 4.5 million pounds of food inventory. That swelled to 12 million pounds during the pandemic. But the agency’s food inventory began to deflate in 2022, partially due to drawn-down emergency response, collapsing to just under one million pounds in August and has remained at a similar level since then.
Hunter said food supply in general has not returned to pre-pandemic levels, and donations to food banks are down, meaning distributors haven’t been able to provide pantries with as much food as they have in the past.
“Go into your local grocery store, and you’ll still notice empty shelf space, you’ll notice items that aren’t for sale anymore because manufacturers have decided to scale down the amount of items they are making, and they are going with the more popular, profit-making ones,” Hunter said. “And they are reducing the size of things but not changing the price. Up and down that chain, nothing’s really changed since COVID.”
He added, “All that investment that the USDA made, it’s a bummer that’s not happening now, because we would be getting truck load after truck load (of food).”
According to Borgh’s statistics, demand at the Hoquiam pantry dropped in 2021, but in 2022, just as inventories at Food Lifeline and Coastal Harvest began to drop, demand shot up, eclipsing the 2020 mark by 15,000 pounds.
“There’s no sign or indication that (demand) is going to change anytime soon,” Hunter said.
Buying more, for more
While demand has skyrocketed, Grays Harbor food pantries have, for the most part, met the challenge.
Sandy Harley is the director of the Ocean Shores Food Bank, which opens its doors to the community every Thursday, when people can walk into a small warehouse at 846 Anchor Ave. and fill their carts with fresh produce, frozen meats and canned goods.
In 2022, Harley’s pantry served over 2,000 more households than it did in 2021, roughly a 40% increase. And 350 of those additional households had never come to the food bank before, Harley said.
Recognizing the need, the Ocean Shores pantry ramped up its accessibility, opening its doors every week instead of twice per month, requiring a more steady supply of food. Nonprofit hunger relief agencies like Coastal Harvest are vital for local pantries, but aren’t the only source of food. Pantries also rely on community donations and food purchases of their own from retail stores. Harley said the Ocean Shores pantry has had to purchase more food from retailers — and, due to inflation, at a higher price — than in the past.
Harley said hunger relief agencies refer to Ocean Shores as a food desert — the town has only one grocery store, an IGA, meaning food pantry volunteers drive to Lacey to restock.
“It’s quite a process that we go through,” Harley said.
In the last year, grocery store food prices have increased by roughly 10%. That’s compared to just a 3.5% increase in 2020. Certain food items are the culprits — egg prices, in particular, jumped by nearly half since last November, partially due to a massive outbreak in bird flu affecting commercial chickens.
One Ocean Shores Food Bank attendee said she wouldn’t be able to eat fresh produce if she couldn’t pick it up at the food bank.
While the Ocean Shores pantry operates more like a grocery store, limited supplies have forced the Salvation Army pantry in Aberdeen to operate with a ration-style system, designating certain amounts of food for each visitor. Less supplies from Coastal Harvest and other providers have forced Gilbert to place several orders of her own in the last few months, all paid out-of-pocket with fundraising money. Fruits, milk and peanut butter are especially hard to get.
On Dec. 13, the Aberdeen pantry temporarily changed its distribution schedule, meaning housed individuals can only pick up a box of food twice per month instead of once per week.
“We had to, because it’s become impossible,” Gilbert said. “We’re scraping by, delivery to delivery like most people are paycheck to paycheck.”
Without a clear end to supply chain issues, and with food prices still rising, food bank directors said community support is partially responsible for keeping them afloat: fundraisers like Food Ball, a food drive run by Aberdeen and Hoquiam high schools, as well as donations from local businesses.
“We’re going to use a large chunk of that (Food Ball money) to get our shelves back to where they need to be,” Gilbert said. “That’s how I’ve been able to buy what we needed to buy. It all goes back to the community, which is fabulous.”
Contact reporter Clayton Franke at 406-552-3917 or firstname.lastname@example.org.