Whidbey’s food banks, meal programs stay strong amid increased demand

— Created April 29, 2020 by Kathy Reed

By Kathy Reed

The struggle to put food on the table is real for many families on Whidbey Island as the COVID-19 crisis continues. Add a growing economic crisis and the result is increased demand at local food banks and for meal programs like Meals on Wheels and Whidbey Island Nourishes.

“We have seen a lot of people who have lost their jobs or have had their hours cut who are coming in,” said Jean Weiman, executive director of North Whidbey Help House in Oak Harbor. “But overall, we’re seeing pretty regular numbers. However, people got extra food stamps, which we didn’t know, so I think we’re probably going to be a little higher going forward.”

“The statistics from March, the first month of this craziness, are also a bit unexpected,” said Carol Squire, executive director of Good Cheer Food Bank and Thrift Stores in Langley. “We have seen a large number of new households signing up and using the food bank for the first time. We have simultaneously seen a reduction in the number of total visits. That can be explained by the fact people are coming out less frequently and shopping for larger amounts at one time. 

“This works in everybody’s favor because, since we’re still open five days a week, no one day sees too many people having to line up or wait for a long time,” she continued. “It definitely doesn’t feel like the pictures we see of urban settings where lines of cars are winding around the block or parking lot.”

Whidbey Island Nourishes, a program that provides weekend lunches to children and teens on South Whidbey is still up and running as well, although its self-serve vending machines are currently closed due to Good Cheer’s thrift stores being closed.  They have also seen an increase in demand.

“We have seen an increased need by some individual families and anticipate a greater need for our summer program once the school lunch program stops delivering at the end of the school year,” said WIN Program Manager Melinda Gardiner. “We’re currently working with Readiness to Learn who is regularly performing risk assessments with low income families on the South end, to better shape what our summer program will look like.”

Meals on Wheels, designed for use by Whidbey residents over age 60 and fulfilled by Island Senior Resources, has seen a large spike in its numbers.

“Requests for Meals on Wheels has increased 42 percent,” said Robin Bush, outreach director for Island Senior Resources, adding how important it is to check in with Whidbey’s seniors. 

“We need to know that isolated seniors are okay,” she said. “All of the seniors who used to eat in our dining rooms no longer have a place to gather, socialize, eat a nutritious lunch and share. We ask everyone in the community to please check on your vulnerable, isolated senior neighbors, make sure they are okay, see if they need help and refer them to Island Senior Resources for assistance.”

While these services are holding their own for now, Weiman and Squire are both concerned about whether they will be able to maintain adequate supplies as this crisis stretches on.

“We are definitely concerned about the long haul,” Squire said. “Right now the cash infusions are helping everyone, but as the economy slowly starts moving and the stimulus winds down, we expect that more folks than ever are going to be needing some food assistance. At Good Cheer we are seriously planning for this short to mid-term future by investing in some new storage containers and stocking up on non-perishables for emergencies.”

“We’ve been fortunate to be able keep up with [the demand] and have even been able to give some extra, which is nice,” Weiman said. “My concern is the supply line going forward. The meat [supply in particular], we’re grabbing what we can. It’s gonna get worse before it gets better.”

“People are experiencing a range of needs, from food insecurities including the delivery of food, to help with laundry and hygiene items, help filling out unemployment applications, information about medical services and insurance, to at-home school supplies and the need for internet services, hotspots and mobile devices for students to participate in continuous learning,” said Readiness to Learn Executive Director Gail Lavassar.

The organization, which works to serve the needs of students and families on South Whidbey, began to respond to the COVID-19 crisis almost immediately, said Lavassar, enabling them to broaden its range of  community resource options.

“All staff pivoted and began outreach to the families we know to assure them we would be alongside helping to navigate resources and supports,” she explained. “Our online Family Resource Center is one outcome of this new way to carry out our mission. We have also expanded our scope by assisting Good Cheer [Food Bank] in contacting their clients to inform them about new hours and procedures and to learn about needs.

“For example, within the online Resource Center, people will find the times the food bank is open and its shopping list,” Lavassar continued. “Likewise, the Whidbey Island Nourishes application and South Whidbey school meals form is there along with information about financial assistance. Resources are provided in both English and Spanish.”

Just as needs are increasing among island residents, many local charitable organizations will be facing their own growing needs. With thrift stores being closed, both Island Senior Resources and Good Cheer have lost important financial lifelines. Help House and Readiness to Learn depend on donations and grants to get by. All of them will have both short and long term needs as the days progress.

“Honestly, our biggest need is financial support,” said Lavassar. “Readiness to Learn has kept all our staff working. We are reliant on grants and donations. As this crisis continues to unfold and emergency grants are expended, we will need support from the local community more than ever to keep providing our highest level of services. This is especially important because more and more families are in need.”

“With the increase in the Meals on Wheels numbers and the closure of our thrift store, we need funding to help us keep up with the increased food costs,” said Bush, adding large nitrile gloves and disinfectant wipes are also needed. “Pledges and donations can be made on our website www.senior-resources.org or by mailing a check to Island Senior Resources, P.O. Box 939, Freeland, WA 98249.  For more information on how to make a gift to Island Senior Resources, contact Charles LaFond, 360-210-3011.”

“Our greatest need currently is monetary support of food-based programs like ours, Good Cheer and Meals on Wheels,” Gardiner said. “Keeping people fed during these difficult times will help hold our community together.”

“Our South Whidbey community has been incredibly generous,” said Squire. “We are holding our own even without the revenues from the Thrift Stores. With the help of the available emergency loans to cover payroll, we’re moving ahead with our storage plans. Donations are being used for food and operating supplies.  

“We’re investigating ways to be able to raise money to buy more produce from our local farmers, who will be struggling this summer to sell their produce that would normally go to tourists and restaurants,” Squire continued. “Investing in the local food system will make our community even more resilient.” 

Weiman said immediate needs for Help House include pasta, canned/packaged tuna and canned chicken. She also said as the growing season progresses, they would welcome donations of fresh produce and fruit such as apples, plums and pears.

“On the other side of that, this community has been amazing,” she said. “It’s not uncommon for us to get 15 people a day pulling in to tell us they’ve got stuff for us. I just want to say thank you to everyone.”

Find North Whidbey Help House on Facebook for information and go to www.goodcheer.org, www.senior-resources.org, www.whidbeyislandnourishes.org or www.readinesstolearn.org for more resources.