If you haven’t been to the Port Angeles Food Bank within the last two years, you would likely walk through their doors today without even realizing you’re in a food bank. The shelves are stocked with an array of choices, the refrigerated section is full of local and organic fruits, veggies and proteins. Smiling clerks greet shoppers as they grab shopping carts and again as they arrive at the check-out counter, where food is weighed up but not rung up. Like many food pantries across the country, the Port Angeles Food Bank has undergone a cultural restructuring built upon a resounding commitment to foster dignity, wellness and autonomy for all, no questions asked.
Food Banks: How we got to where we are
The first official food bank was founded in 1967 by John Van Hengel in Phoenix, Arizona upon principles of food waste reallocation and direct community aid. At that time, food pantries were unequipped to distribute fresh food, so the staggering needs were met solely by processed, shelf-stable foods funneled through commodity food surplus programs.
In 1975, Van Hengel received a federal grant to create 18 additional food banks. These would be large storehouses for millions of pounds of food that would serve food pantries and they would set a new standard for food banking, and the stage for donations from major food manufacturers.
In 1980, Van Hengel’s Food Banking organization became ‘Feeding America’, and food banking began to grow into an industry. This was boosted by the Temporary Emergency Food Assistance Program that was created during the 1981-1982 recession amid cuts to food stamps. However, the assistance was not temporary, and the long-lasting and ever-changing charitable response to hunger was not actually addressing an emergency, but rather, becoming an established contributor to the pervasive and long-lasting inequities in the way food is distributed, accessed and utilized.
For the past several decades, government commodity food programs have taken a backseat to major agribusiness in the food banking world. Today, 70-80% of food distributed through food banks comes from the private sector— especially post-retail and post-manufacturing— while 20% comes from government programs. Major agribusinesses have profited from the food banking industry because their success is measured by “pounds of food distributed” rather than actual metrics of hunger eradication. The goal of reducing hunger shifted to supporting agribusiness surplus.
Food banks are made possible by donations from grocery store chains, but agribusiness and food retail corporations reap benefits in return because they are able to write off moldy, perished or unsafe food that is donated in bulk to food banks. In these cases, food banks or community food pantries bear the responsibility of food disposal. Also concerning is a 2018 study which pointed out that 25% of food distributed through pantries is considered unhealthy— not due to a lack of compassion and care on the part of community organizations, but because shelf-stable and easy-to-prepare food is packed with sugar, saturated fat and sodium.
Now decades of research shows that people who are food insecure are also at the highest risk of diet-related illnesses, such as type 2 diabetes, heart diseases and hypertension. Paramount to this challenge is the scarcity mindset that has long exacerbated inequity in the emergency food system, where food pantries and pantry shoppers were supposed to take whatever they could get.
Equitable and Dignified Food Banking
At the same time, over the past decade, community-based organizations such as food pantries have been at the forefront of a cultural shift in the world of “emergency food”, by beginning to organize against exploitation of systemic hunger and address the root causes of food insecurity.
These changes have taken many forms, with some more apparent for food bank shoppers, and others more embedded into institutional practice, like donor relations and food sourcing protocols.
For many agencies, a first step involves addressing and eliminating the stigma associated with visiting food pantries by educating staff and volunteers, and then creating spaces that look and operate just like grocery stores. At the Port Angeles Food Bank, shoppers receive a unique member card on their first visit. Trained staff and volunteers greet and assist shoppers through the process to ensure that they feel comfortable.
There are now four pantries in Jefferson County that have observed the benefits of their in-person grocery store model. Their shoppers are able to self-select items that meet their dietary needs, and food waste is reduced overall as a result.
Second, as a direct response to food bank shoppers’ expressed preferences for fresh produce and meat rather than processed foods, organizations have implemented nutrition policies that prioritize acquiring and distributing fresh and healthy food. This starts at the procurement stage, where food bank volunteers are empowered to reject grocery store donations of unhealthy or nearly-rotten food.
Ensuring a steady supply of healthy and whole foods is not easy, given the systemic challenges noted above. Statewide organizations like the Washington Food Coalition (WFC) staff dieticians and policy advocates to provide guidance, support and resources for food pantries looking to implement wellness or food safety policies. The WFC has assisted some agencies, like the Sequim Food Bank, as they implement color-coded nutrition ranking systems to guide food bank shoppers towards options that are lower in sodium, sugar and saturated fats.
On the Olympic Peninsula, sourcing desirable high quality foods involves building community partnerships with farmers and organizations like the WSU Clallam County Extension that runs the Farm to Food Pantry program, which pays local farmers to provide regular deliveries of seasonal produce to food pantry shelves.
This program contracts local farmers to provide regular deliveries of seasonal produce to food pantry shelves. Over the past 6 years approximately $43,270 of contracts have been granted by Harvest Against Hunger, WSDA and private local donations. Additionally, the Olympic Peninsula Farmers Fund, which was a local response to the shutdowns during 2020 and 2021, delivered over $120,000 for these types of contracts. This has opened new enduring pathways and networks and you can see the increases happening in the bar graph. Also exciting is that WSU Clallam Extension was just awarded $56,000 from a WSDA Resiliency grant that will contribute to hunger relief and local food access as we move into 2023.
Farm to Food Bank contracting has become an economic anchor for local farms while also providing respect and nourishment to our neighbors in need. In 2022 Jefferson and Clallam purchased over 7,783 lbs from local farms through Farm To Food Pantry, pretty impressive!
Third, for some communities, considering choice and wellness may look like dismantling the U.S. food pantry model to provide more culturally appropriate food assistance. To better serve their elders and those who need the pantry most often, the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribal Food Pantry is considering food processing projects, a mobile pantry, and increased collaboration with their Traditional Foods Program and tribal community gardens to create access for tribal citizens to reincorporate native and traditional foods into their diets.
Finally, some food banks staff one or more “resource navigators” who are available to meet directly with food bank shoppers seeking assistance to access healthcare, employment resources or other necessary programs to escape the vicious cycle of poverty. These changes, along with the “choice” model used by pantries such as the Port Angeles Food Bank, are what emerging experts refer to as equitable and dignified food banking that addresses hunger as a symptom of a broken food system.
Food pantries organize to meet community need
Food access organizations are constantly walking the line between fostering choice and dignity for food insecure shoppers, while also promoting wellness through product merchandising and education using programs such as nutrition ranking systems. While a typical supermarket is a rainbow of choice, it also embodies a cutthroat food marketing environment where major agribusiness competes for product loyalty with little genuine concern for shopper wellness. On the other hand, over-promoting nutritious options can make a food pantry visit feel too much like a nutrition intervention, which could exacerbate the stigma we would like to see pantries working to mitigate.
Local food access networks are an essential foundation for direct communication and collaboration between the actors in the food access landscape. Coalition groups and network organizations like the Peninsula Food Coalition— at 80 members and growing— create space for agencies to get together and share knowledge, coordinate projects, overcome individual and communal barriers, and keep pushing the frontier of equitable and collectivized food security in our communities.
Pantries bear the brunt of winter scarcity
For a large number of American families and individuals, the Norman Rockwell-style holiday meal is only possible because of the hard work of local food banks and community meal programs, which often distribute at least twice as much food during the holiday season. For example, the Sequim Food Bank anticipates distributing 2000 holiday meal boxes to families in East Clallam County, while the average weekly distribution of the pantry does not typically exceed 300 families per week. Since April of this year, Port Angeles Food Bank’s enrollment has doubled.
Winter holidays are a chaotic time for most, but in the world of food banking, the hustle to help community members stay fed while celebrating with family and fulfilling holiday expectations of bounty is a tremendous undertaking. In our unprecedented times, the struggle to provide holiday meal boxes on top of regular food distribution services is compounded by staggering food prices, a greater need than ever before, and an economic crunch that makes the funding landscape unpredictable.
The Port Angeles Food Bank is a regional hub
The Port Angeles Food Bank is an epicenter of wellness-centered food banking on the Olympic Peninsula. Aside from setting the standard for other pantries exploring choice-centered food distribution models, the Port Angeles Food Bank also operates as a hub for food pantries across Clallam County. Port Angeles Food Banks staff, warehouse capacity and fleet of delivery vehicles allows the food bank to bulk order and redistribute food to smaller and lower-resourced pantries, especially those serving communities in Clallam’s West End and Tribal food pantries serving Native sovereign nations on the Peninsula. The Peninsula has 8 food pantries, Neah Bay, Quileute, Forks, Lower Elwha, Port Angeles, Jamestown S’Klallam and Sequim in Clallam. The Jefferson County Food Bank association consists off our locations: Tri- Area, Port Townsend, Quilcene, Brinnon.
Supporting local food banks is nourishing your neighbor
Food pantries need support, now more than ever. While pantries appreciate quality donations of shelf-stable items, monetary donations make the biggest difference and go the furthest in providing quality food per cent or pound. Furthermore, by donating financially to food pantries, we are further able to empower them to serve the community as they know best how, in the many ways we’ve analyzed above. Consider making a donation to a few of the food pantries below, and the benefits will be shared with their food access partners across the region.
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