“One of beauties of this organization is a very simple mission: To end hunger in our community,” says Robert Coit, Executive Director of the Thurston County Food Bank. To that end, the Food Bank relies upon that same community to help them provide services to the hungry. It’s neighbors helping neighbors.
Whether it’s donating food or money, volunteering time at the facility, or helping glean unwanted produce from a local farm, individuals and businesses have stepped up to the plate to help provide a basic need.
Coit explains that while he has 12 full and part time paid employees, “The real secret is volunteers.” The Food Bank sees about 500 regular volunteers in any given month. 35-40 people work one of two daily shifts, and still more participate on monthly or weekly crews that focus on special projects. And those numbers just scratch the surface. In addition to the downtown facility, the Food Bank supplies food to 15 satellite banks that recruit their own volunteers.
“Our satellite food bank system is primarily the faith community. Often they are smaller congregations that really don’t have the resources to help in a big way, so by partnering with them, we leverage the volunteers they do have, their location, and we provide the food. So with that collaborative partnership we’ve been able to expand the number of food banks.”
In addition to individual volunteers, support comes from local businesses. Grocery stores, restaurants, and bakeries provide surplus perishable goods on a daily basis. In fact, there is a regular pick up schedule with nearly every grocery store in the greater Olympia area.
Much of the food available through the Thurston County Food Bank comes in the form of non-perishable canned and boxed goods donated via food drives or purchased in bulk. While those will always be a staple, there has been a subtle shift in the past few years. In an on-going effort to best meet the needs of its clients, the Food Bank conducts a survey every two years. “In a lot of ways, it charts the course for our work,” says Coit. In 2009 one of the needs expressed was for more fresh produce.
“A couple of new programs – initiatives – were started about that time to address that. One is a gleaning program. There the primary focus is to work with local farms and farmers and harvest their unwanted produce.” The second program is a partnership with organizations that have community gardens. Individuals who grow fruits and vegetables in private gardens are also welcome to donate what they can’t use.
Coit and his team have started encouraging local schools to contribute in this way, too. “Instead of doing a food drive and collecting canned goods, why don’t you consider growing food on the school grounds and letting people understand that produce comes from farms not from (a grocery store).”
Participation in a school garden program may directly affect the students at a school too. According to Coit, all 31 elementary schools in the Olympia, Tumwater, and North Thurston school districts participate in the FORKids Backpack Meals program run through the Food Bank.
With no federal funding and only about $65,000 a year of state money available, the key to keeping the Food Bank viable is wise use of staff, volunteers, and the food available to distribute. 97% of the Food Bank’s funding comes from individuals and without that community commitment, things would fall apart quickly. There is a striking parallel to the balance the Food Bank’s clients try to maintain. “Really, it’s a matter of resources,” explains Coit. “They have a family budget, but (for whatever reason) they can’t make the rent, so they come to the food bank. They make a trip here. They take that food home, and it shakes loose $100 they can use to help pay the rent. They don’t have enough resources to make it, but by coming here, they can hold it together for another month.”
On any given day, anywhere between 175 and 300 people come through the doors of the downtown facility. The majority of those are parents trying to keep food on the table for their children. Sometimes the wait to get through the doors can take up to three hours. It can be a humbling experience, but the end result is enough food to feed a family for a week.
The Thurston County Food Bank has ongoing needs. According to Coit there is a “Top 5 List” of the most in demand items
1. Boxed macaroni and cheese.
2. Breakfast cereals
3. Protein items like beef stew, chili with meat, tuna fish, and canned chicken
4. Canned fruit
Currently the Food Bank is collecting items that will go into 1500 Thanksgiving boxes it will provide to the community. Items for baking, canned pumpkin, Jello, stuffing mix and similar items would be appreciated through the entire holiday season.
Paper, plastic, and reusable shopping bags are also in demand. Every time high use items are donated, it keeps the Food Bank from having to purchase them, “shaking loose” a little bit of money that can be used elsewhere.
For more information about the programs available through the Thurston County Food Bank, how you can volunteer or donate: