An estimated 1.6 million people are expected to turn to Washington's food banks by the end of this week, to keep from going hungry. That’s about twice as many as normal. Federal aid to address that new need is not expected to be available until July.
So, the state is asking for help raising about $13 million dollars — to keep the shelves stocked and people from going hungry, despite the challenges created by the new coronavirus.
Even as they face dangerously low levels of food, Washington’s food banks are transforming their operations. To be safe, they’re now packing up emergency boxes that can be delivered or picked up curbside. Federal help will eventually come, but not soon enough.
“This is a stopgap. This is the $13 million or more stopgap that we have to cover in the next month or so,” said Kiran Ahuja, CEO of Philanthropy Northwest, which is tasked with leading the fundraising campaign.
The money will pay for everything from the food items themselves to the packaging materials and transportation needed to get them where they need to go — hundreds of food banks around the state — for distribution to people and families in need.
The food banks have had to move lots of stockpiled food out of their warehouses, to make room for social distancing, says Aaron Czyzewski, the advocacy and public policy director with Food Lifeline, one of three organizations that supply networks of food banks in Washington. The other two are Northwest Harvest and Second Harvest.
All three organizations have recently seen food flying off their pantry shelves. At the same time, they have to transition to the new model of emergency boxes. Each one contains enough food for a family of four, for four days.
“We know right now — because of at least a doubling in demand — our estimates are that we will not be able to make it to July without accessing more food,” Czyzewski said.
So the food banks are looking to purchase more food, “in order to make sure those inventories are steady. And that's why the call for fundraising: so we can go out and source food to build these emergency food boxes.”
Also important, he says, is a Congressional request to increase federal hunger relief programs, such as SNAP or TANF, that function outside the food banks. Recipients get these funds on debit cards that people in need can use them at grocery stores or farmers markets. More of those benefits would take pressure off of the food banks, in this atmosphere of unprecedented unemployment.
More than 350,000 Washington residents filed for unemployment insurance last week — nearly double the number of just the previous week. And at the same time, donations to food banks were down by 70 percent, according the founders of the fund.
Gov. Jay Inslee convened the organizations to create the fund, saying in a statement that "this is a moment for individuals to make a difference.”
“Washingtonians are generous neighbors who rise to the occasion, and this is a moment for individuals to make a difference,” Inslee said in the statement. “By coming together and contributing to this fund, we can meet this demand across the state and help our neighbors and their families put a meal on the table.”
Ahuja, with Philanthropy Northwest, says she has been taking lots of deep breaths lately. Her organization was asked to launch the fund less than a week ago. They are aiming to reach their goal in four weeks. She's an accomplished fundraiser, but has never faced a challenge of this magnitude. Still, they’re up and running now, online. The relief effort is called WA Food Fund.
“We're going to be approaching a lot of corporations and foundations for sizable contributions, because that's going to be key to get us to this number,” Ahuja said.
But, she says, her organization also hopes that anyone who can will pitch in with donations as small as $5 in grocery stores once they deploy that part of the campaign, or $10 on the fund’s Kickstarter page.