Whidbey food banks serving a rising need

— Created October 28, 2020 by Kathy Reed

By Kathy Reed

Whidbey Island’s food banks are beginning to see a steady increase in need as people are no longer receiving supplemental federal unemployment aid and will soon see extra food stamps disappear as well.

“It hasn’t been huge, but there has definitely been an increase,” said Jean Weiman, executive director of North Whidbey Help House in Oak Harbor. “In fact, we’ve had a couple of days where we’ve seen [our numbers nearly double].”

Weiman said they expect the trend to keep going, due in large part to the economic woes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think it’s really going to pick up beginning next year,” she said. “We’ve heard everything from people saying their hours have been cut, to they’ve been laid off, or they haven’t gotten any unemployment yet. The economy hasn’t rebounded. People are scared to hire more people at this point.”

It’s a similar story on the south end of the island, according to Carol Squire, executive director of Good Cheer food bank in Langley.

“While there has been a steady addition of new families since March, many of our regular shoppers hadn’t been coming and were ‘leaving the food for those who need it most.’ Beginning in September, we’ve seen a slow return of households as the supplemental unemployment benefits have run out,” she said. “The supplemental SNAP or ‘food stamp’ benefits program is funded through December. This benefit has been even more directly helpful for families’ grocery needs so when it runs out, we expect our numbers to rise significantly.”

Fortunately, the supply chain has continued to work well during the pandemic, so the food banks’ shelves are well stocked. Plus, money from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act has also been helpful.

“CARES funds that came through Washington State Department of Agriculture were made available to food banks for improvements and increasing capacity for service, delivery and storage,” explained Squire. “We were able to put these to good use in upgrading our 30-year-old refrigerator and freezer display units and to replace the roof that had started to leak badly. We now have two containers for non-perishable storage, new shelving units in our walk-in freezer, and have applied for a PSE grant for solar panels on our new metal roof.”

“We did get some aid through WSDA,” Weiman said. “We ended up putting electricity to our produce stand and purchasing a display fridge so we can keep produce fresh. We also put new lighting in the warehouse and we got a new van. Our old van was 14 years old and it had only 56,000 miles on it, but it was starting to nickel and dime us. As far as any of the payroll protection grants the county and the city have been offering, we didn’t apply for any of that because we’re doing okay.”

 Help House is now focusing on the upcoming holidays. Registration for its Thanksgiving baskets begins Nov. 2 and runs through Nov. 13. If people don’t register during that time, they will be put on a waiting list, but Weiman said they will still get a basket.

“Everyone will get a basket, it just might not have the ‘extras’ in it that those who registered early will get,” she explained, adding that baskets vary in size, depending on the size of the family or household. “Every Thanksgiving basket includes turkey, stuffing mix, potatoes, cranberries, chicken broth, celery and margarine. We try to throw in extras and have been collecting flour and sugar, hot chocolate mix, etc.”

 Weiman encouraged donations of pumpkin pie filling, evaporated milk, canned yams and sweet potatoes and said they could also use oatmeal and pasta.

“If they want to throw in a bag of candy or hot chocolate mix, we’ll make sure people get it,” she added.

At Good Cheer, they would normally be preparing for the annual Empty Soup Bowl Night. They still are, but the event is going to look much different this year.

“Empty Soup Bowl Night has always been a place for us to gather together with our community to enjoy each others’ company while eating great soup donated by our local restaurants,” Squire said. “People would come in, pick out a bowl and then sample as many soups as they could.

“This year, we’re going to gather on Zoom on Friday, Nov. 20 from 6 to 7 p.m.,” she continued. “Beautiful bowls, handcrafted and donated by members of the Whidbey Clay Center, are already on sale at both Good Cheer Thrift stores in Langley and Clinton. Scrumptious soup recipes submitted by community members are online here: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1WS2lBW00zfTaoUzZ2IQ809nEEzBg_000?usp=sharing.  
The hope is that folks will pick up a bowl, try a new recipe, then come on to the call to hear about how the South Whidbey community organizations have been working together to ensure that no one goes hungry.”

Throughout the pandemic, everyone has had to learn how to navigate uncharted territory. Squire and Weiman both said their respective communities have come together to make sure the food banks can continue to serve those who need a helping hand.

“The first three weeks were horrible,” Weiman acknowledged. “No one knew what to expect.  We closed for a day in March to do a top-to-bottom cleaning. In April, we decreased the hours we’re open. But, we’ve extended our hours again – 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Tuesday. So we’ve added a couple of hours back into our day and we’ve been seeing people during that extra hour.”

Weiman said they have also gained back some of their volunteers, although they are running a little short for help for Thanksgiving.

Both of the Good Cheer Thrift Stores have reopened, with staggered hours of operation. The Langley store is open from noon to 5 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, the Clinton (Ken’s Korner) store is open noon to 5 p.m. Tuesdays and Fridays. Donations of used treasures only are being taken from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursdays at the distribution center at 2812 Grimm Road.

“While we feel stable, not in crisis mode, and prepared for the upcoming months, we know that things are going to be difficult for many families for a long time to come,” said Squire. “We are currently asking for support to build a small addition onto the food bank where we will station ‘Community Connectors’ to help people navigate the many services available to them at the state, county and local level. This is a missing piece in our community and one that Good Cheer is well-placed to fill. We’ve raised about half of the $200,000 we need to make this a reality.”

Find more information on Good Cheer at goodcheer.org. Find North Whidbey Help House on Facebook, or call 360-675-0681. Gifts from the Heart Food Bank in Coupeville is also available to serve central Whidbey. Find them at giftsfromtheheartfoodbank.com