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Free storefront market replaces food bank in Seattle

Northwest Harvest has opened a storefront grocery store in Seattle's SODO neighborhood. The hunger relief agency says the market, where customers shop for free, is a replacement for the recently closed Cherry Street Food Bank in the city's First Hill neighborhood. The organization's goal is to provide a regular shopping experience for food bank clients and to destigmatize food insecurity.

The store could be mistaken for a boutique market. There's understated lighting, polished wood bins and attractively displayed produce. On Monday, as the store prepared to open for the first time, a staffer in a black apron looked the part of a regular grocery store clerk, as he carefully stacked cartons of eggs next to rows of milk. 

Jordan Rubin, communications director for Northwest Harvest, said the look and feel of SODO Community Market is different from the typical food pantry experience, where clients go through a line and pick out items as they go. He said the new experience is meant to be more casual.

"They can browse. They can come in at their leisure," Rubin said. "If they want to come in and grab a quick sandwich, that's fine. Or if they want to do a whole thing of grocery shopping and fill up their bag, that's wonderful, as well."

There are still restrictions on how much of each item someone can put in their shopping basket. And the market is only open on Monday, Wednesday and Friday for limited hours, similar to the food bank that preceeded it.

Longtime food bank clients seemed pleased with the grocery store concept. Waiting outside for the store to open on Monday, Cheryl Hamilton said she was excited. "I think it looks really nice. It's very open," Hamilton said. She said she lives nearby and likes the convenience of the location.

Northwest Harvest said the store is open to everyone. Customers are asked for their name and the number of people in their household, Rubin said, so they have a record of how many people are being served.