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Volunteers stretch food bank's ability to feed people

Most critical to efforts of Second Harvest Northwest is the assistance of more than 2,200 volunteers.  They give more than 40,000 hours a year to facilitate distribution of food to more than 300 food banks and outlets in Eastern Washington and North Idaho.

There are about 65 volunteers for every paid employee, said Jason Clark, executive director of Second Harvest.

second harvest

New cooler/freezer expands storage space.

Volunteers range from short-term helpers with events such as Tom’s Turkey Drive—which provided more than 6,000 turkeys before Thanksgiving to families in need in the community—to those filling ongoing roles sorting and packing donated food at the warehouse.

“We help the volunteers find a meaningful way to be involved that also serves us,” Jason said.  “In addition to volunteers for Second Harvest itself, the food banks we serve rely on thousands more volunteers.

 “We have relied heavily on individual and private donors throughout our 35 years of operations,” he added, noting that they take into account the dips during election years when people are distracted and mailings may be buried in campaign promotions.

Other challenges to Second Harvest in 2006 are the rising costs of freight and fuel. 

Given those costs, Jason seeks more local sources of food, aware that most food is manufactured in other areas of the country.  So he brought in more fresh produce from the Columbia River Basin—potatoes, onions, carrots and apples.

To help Second Harvest, located at 1234 E Front in Spokane,  keep perishable foods fresh to feed more hungry people, a 100,000-cubic-foot cooler-freezer was built with funds from a Washington State Capital Budget Appropriation.

Its recent survey of 814 clients at 21 emergency food outlets in Spokane County confirmed that the rising number of working families are in food lines because they work at low-paying jobs.  In addition, there are more seniors.

“The increase in seniors may be because baby boomers’ parents are aging and because the oldest baby boomers are entering retirement age without an adequate nest egg,” Jason said.

“From our outlets, we hear stories of people juggling the cost of housing and prescriptions with the cost of food, so they are using the food banks to bridge the gap,” he said.

The 2006 client survey is Second Harvest’s 20th annual survey, the longest-running food bank survey in the nation.  Volunteers also help compile it.

From the surveys, Second Harvest learns stories of people coming to outlets—their hopes, their piecing together full- and part-time jobs, their meager pension checks, their rising utility and fuel and other bills increasing the cost of living.

Contrasting figures in the mid-1990s with those of 2006, the survey found that children are now 42, rather than 47 percent of clients, and 59 percent of parents go without food so their children can eat, compared with 48 percent 10 years ago.

In 1991, 82 percent were renters, compared with 73 percent today; 30 percent received food stamps then while 61 percent do now, and 42 were single parents then, in contrast with 24 percent in 2006.

In 1997, the emergency food box lasted at least five days for 34 percent, and in 2006, for 78 percent. 

That year, 45 percent were heads of households who had been employed in the past year, compared with 66 percent in 2006.

For 2006, the survey also found that 91 percent of households received food within 24 hours of their request. 

Jason added that he also keeps up with what is happening at outlet meetings, where representatives from Spokane’s food banks share statistics and anecdotes.

Recently several reported seeing more new families, people who had never come before.  One said half its clients were new.

“The average number of visits, four and a half per year, remains constant, and is usually driven by a crisis.  Most food banks set a limit that people can be served only once a month.  That way they can stretch the food to have enough for everyone who comes,” Jason said.

Second Harvest serves outlying areas, but some areas are too remote to be cost effective.

Thrivent Financial for Lutherans funded a new delivery truck and has helped with arrangements to fill it with fresh produce and perishables to deliver to Wenatchee, Clarkston, Post Falls, Tri-Cities, Spokane Valley and Stevens County.

In those communities, local Thrivent chapters provide volunteers who spend about two hours helping distribute about 10,000 pounds of food from the truck outside a food bank.  They do that about four times a month.

“Our mission is to feed hungry people, to be sure those in need have food,” Jason said, pointing out that Second Harvest’s lobbyist in Olympia focuses on food-related legislation—such as food stamps, free and reduced lunches and WIC supplements.

For information, call 534-6678 or visit