PIERCE COUNTY CONNECTED Spotlight: Working Together To Feed Our Neighbors
PIERCE COUNTY FOOD ACCESS: The Need, Resources, and How You Can Help
As the public health response to COVID-19 in Pierce County escalated on March 13, 2020, United Way of Pierce County and Greater Tacoma Community Foundation partnered for an aligned philanthropic response to emerging community needs. Together, they launched the PIERCE COUNTY CONNECTED fund, seeded with $1,750,000 from GTCF.
As of April 16, 2020, 191 local and regional foundations, businesses, and individuals have contributed a combined $6.5 million to PIERCE COUNTY CONNECTED. So far, $1.6 million in rapid response funding has been distributed to 56 local entities and organizations.
Through this aligned philanthropic response, county organizations, agencies, entities, and organizations are sharing the needs and opportunities that are emerging in the community as a result of COVID-19 and the necessary public health measures to address it. This is the first of a series spotlighting areas of need that have been surfaced through PIERCE COUNTY CONNECTED.
Even before COVID-19, food access was an area of need for many Pierce County residents. 1 in 7 adults and 1 in 5 children in our community are food insecure, and over 60,000 students in Pierce County receive free or reduced-cost meals at school.
“This community has always worked together in creative and unconventional ways, and it’s in moments like this that we see that paying off.”
That need is now projected to more than double as a result of lost wages and jobs due to COVID-19 and health measures to mitigate its spread. Based on United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates, Pierce County food pantries could see 732,000 visits per month during peak need, up from a normal monthly average of 114,618. “We’re seeing a lot of new, first-time clients at our locations”, said Claire Bunker, Grants & Communications Manager at Nourish Pierce County. “You can feel the sense of urgency. Some of them never thought they would have to rely on the food bank.”
Local schools are seeing evidence of the increased need for food as well. According to Leeda Beha, Child Nutrition Services Director at Bethel Schools the number of meals served through the district’s Meals in Motion program has jumped from around 3,500 meals a day when it launched on March 14, to over 9,000 meals a day last week. “There are more people out of work now and they need to make choices about how to spend their money. If they can access food for free, they can use what money they have to meet other needs.”
As the need increases, local food banks are trying to increase their inventory as well. Emergency Food Network, a local nonprofit that provides 14.4 million pounds of food annually to food pantries, hot meal sites and shelters across Pierce County, has dramatically ramped up their buying; already exceeding their annual purchasing budget in the past four weeks alone.
According to Emergency Food Network CEO, Michelle Douglas, purchasing food in this economy is more difficult than it sounds. “Buying food right now is like trading on the New York Stock Exchange. The available supply is lower than normal, and everyone across the country bidding on it.” Michelle says the available supply is not going to be enough to meet the demand over the next few months. “No system is designed to meet this need. We are all going to need to think outside the box to work together for a solution.”
While the need is great, Michelle says she’s inspired by the way she has already seen individuals and organizations stepping up to address it. “This community has always worked together in creative and unconventional ways, and it’s in moments like this that we see that paying off.”
“We just tell them to show up, and we’ll help you out.”
There are 82 food pantries across Pierce County where individuals and families can access food and resources. In order to observe social distancing requirements, many local food banks have pre-packaged boxes ready for clients to pick up. Additionally, most food banks are not requiring any documentation or proof of need to access food.
Claire from Nourish Pierce County says when clients ask what they need to bring, “We just tell them to show up, and we’ll help you out.”
Emergency Food Network has also increased food access by partnering with local community groups to open several pop-up food distribution sites to serve vulnerable populations across Pierce County. They are also offering numerous vegetable starts from their Mother Earth Farm and developing plans for a short-term delivery system for high need individuals.
School District Meal Programs
“We love our kids and we want to do what we can to support and make this experience a bright spot in their day.”
School Districts across Pierce County are playing a hugely important role in the food access system by providing free breakfast and lunch for all children ages 1-18 in their service area, including children who are not enrolled or younger than school age.
This mobile service allows for children and families who may not be able to make it to school sites to access free meals as well.
“We have staff who dress up and just do whatever they can to cheer kids up when they come for pick-up,” says Leeda. “We love our kids and we want to do what we can to support and make this experience a bright spot in their day.”
This map shows all the school district meal distribution locations countywide. Each district offers specific information about meal services on their website as well.
Food Delivery Support
“We’ve fulfilled over 150 requests in the past few weeks so far, and we probably have over 100 more waiting.”
On a neighborhood level, organizations and local collectives are banding together to fill in the gaps for residents who may have difficulty accessing services provided by the food banks and schools.
Network Tacoma is currently offering food delivery service within Tacoma to at-risk families and individuals in our community who cannot leave their homes. A group of volunteer drivers are delivering each Friday between 1 and 3 p.m., on a first come first serve basis until supplies run out each week. To request delivery, email [email protected] with your name, address, phone number, and # of people in the household.
Tacoma Mutual Aid Collective (TMAC), a grassroots group that started in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood in Fall 2018, is also offering delivery support for groceries, prescriptions, and other supplies for sick, quarantined, immuno-compromised, or elderly residents. They take into consideration special dietary needs as well as the level of food preparation each individual can perform.
According to TMAC’s Zoe Grieder, “We’ve fulfilled over 150 requests in the past few weeks so far, and we probably have over 100 more waiting.”
Individuals or families in Tacoma can complete this form to request delivery support from TMAC.
How You Can Help
Food banks rely on volunteer support to maintain their day to day operations, however, due to current health conditions many regular volunteers are unable to help. According to Claire from Nourish Pierce County “a majority of our volunteers are over 60 years old, and, based on recommendations from the CDC, are staying at home to safeguard their health.” While the National Guard has stepped in to help at all 26 Nourish locations, many other local food banks and mutual aid collectives are still in need of volunteers.
United Way of Pierce County is also hosting this volunteer connector page that provides a list of volunteer opportunities at food banks across the county. Tacoma Mutual Aid Collective is also accepting volunteers through this intake form.
While most school districts are currently unable to accept volunteers due to health requirements, there may be a need for help in the summer months when many of the food service employees are not contracted to work.
Making a financial donation is the most effective way to support hunger relief during this time, and there are many ways you can give.
- Give directly to your local food bank (find a food bank near you).
- Give to a larger organization like Nourish Pierce County or Emergency Food Network who support countywide food operations.
- Give to the Washington Food Fund to support food access on a statewide level.
- Give to the Pierce County Connected Fund to support food access and other urgent COVID-19 related needs in Pierce County.
May is Hunger Awareness Month in Pierce County, and Emergency Food Network is asking residents to do at least one thing to help increase food access locally. In addition to volunteering, here are a few ways you can get involved:
- Contact Your Representatives
Michelle says we can all make a difference by asking our local, state, and federal government officials to:
- Keep SNAP benefits up so people can shop at grocery stores
- Continue advocating for the Washington Food Fund
- Support agriculture, farmers and all those who help provide food
- Continue advocating for more relief for hospitals, small business, and nonprofits
- Participate in the 40th Annual Emergency Food Network Hunger Walk & 5K – May 2, 2020
Based on the stay at home order from the Governor’s office, Emergency Food Network has transitioned its annual Hunger Walk to a Virtual Hunger Walk. This year’s event is taking place on May 2, and instead of gathering everyone in one location, they will walk from their own homes and neighborhoods. You can register to participate in the Virtual Hunger Walk here.
- Plant a Victory GardenWith a shortage of food in the system, one way to help is by creating new food sources. Many local families have already started their own gardens and are donating a portion to local food banks. More people growing own food also decreases the demand from grocery stores and food banks. Emergency Food Network is also sharing vegetable starts from their Mother Earth Farm. You can pick them up at the farm or at many of their partner food banks.
- Share Gratitude
Food Bank Staff, School Nutrition Staff, and numerous volunteers are on the front lines every day working long hours and potentially putting their own health at risk to make sure everyone has access to the food they need.
Whether it’s making a card, a banner, a social media post, or just saying “Thank You” let all these essential food workers know how much we appreciate the work they are doing to help ensure everyone in Pierce County has access to food in this time of need.
Further requests for funding to are now being accepted. Details are available at GTCF’s website.
Donations to the PIERCE COUNTY CONNECTED Fund can also be made by contacting GTCF’s Philanthropy Team or through United Way of Pierce County’s website.