By Cassandra Calderon
A computer and a clear box of numbered stickers are the only items to occupy Felicia Parson’s desk just inside the doorway at the Rainier Valley Food Bank.
Minimalism is key in this small space easily filled on food distribution days. On these days, Parson greets every individual that passes her post.
She is a familiar face to many.
“Move forward, please,” Parson recites as guests stop to vie for her attention. They wait while she registers their I.D. cards on a computer and hands out the stickers dictating how much food they can collect.
“Stay in line, thank you,” she says, ushering the line into uniformity with one quick phrase.
It used to be that Parson saw only 300 guests on a given distribution day when she first began volunteering at RVFB in 2012.
Now, four years later, that number has more than doubled to roughly 700 to 800 guests every Wednesday and Saturday.
“Trying to feed everybody is crazy sometimes because people want more than they’re supposed to have,” Parson says. “It’s hard to tell people that and to tell them no. To say, look I’ve got 700 people out here needing food.”
The amount of guests collecting food has increased by 70 percent in the last year alone, according to Food Access Coordinator Lili Fischer, with more people coming in every month.
“It used to be that 300 was a lot of people and then 400 was a lot,” Fischer says.“It’s just continually rising and it’s just pretty frightening.”
For Fischer, the increase signals to the much larger issue of food security in Seattle that needs to be addressed. She believes the recent changes in the Supplemental
Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAPS), which distributes food stamps, are responsible for the rapid increase.
Last year, the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture announced that many states would no longer be eligible to waive a time restriction limiting SNAPS accessibility for Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents. The waiver was available to states during economic hardship and allowed ABAWDs to access food stamps without restriction.
Without the waiver, ABAWDs are limited to collecting food stamps for just three months in any 36-month period, unless they meet specific work requirements.
King County’s own waiver expired on December 31, 2015, affecting roughly 35,000
individuals according to multiple reports.
“The horrible thing is they made these cuts but they didn’t supplement it with more support,” Fischer says. “They say that there’s opportunity through all the job training programs offered, but a lot of them are over-saturated and have waiting lists.”
“If you’re on a waiting list for a job training program, you still don’t qualify for food stamps,” she says.
On the other hand, Fischer says, RVFB also encounters guests that simply don’t receive enough SNAPS assistance regardless of the waiver expiration.
“Connie” Constance is one such individual.
“Being on disability, they don’t give me much in food SNAPS, so I supplement that little bit with stuff the food bank is able to provide,” Connie says.
Connie had volunteered at RVFB since 2010 until a recent stroke.
“I had my last stroke in 2015 and now I’ve been coming as a guest,” Connie says. Like Connie, many volunteers at RVFB are either current or past guests as well.
Despite the spike in guests, RVFB has been able to meet the increasing demand through the three programs it offers: food distribution, home deliveries and cold bags.
Unique to other food banks, the small establishment housed on Rainier Avenue South does not restrict its services to individuals of a specific zip code as most other banks do.
Rather, anyone who needs food assistance can visit RVFB on one of two distribution days each week. As early as 8 a.m., guests arrive to claim a number that dictates the order guests enter the food bank.
Once inside, Parson hands each guest a sticker numbered one through five. The number reflects how many people are in their family and how much food they will receive. The whole operation functions on an honor system.
“The way we know what numbered sticker to give them, is we ask people,” Fischer says. “How many infants, children, adults and elderly their household has … we trust them.”
Within the roughly 10 by 20 foot distribution room, guests travel in a line curved like a horseshoe. Swiftly, they choose from shelves of dry and canned goods, a cold fridge, unlimited bread, and a produce and protein station.
Alongside the in-house distribution program, RVFB offers weekly home deliveries to qualifying individuals and “cold bags” that provide a single prepared meal.
“The cold bags are for folks that have a more immediate need for food or who don’t have access to cooking facilities,” Fischer says. “It ensures that at the least they’re taken care of for one meal of the day.”
Former volunteer and current Warehouse Coordinator Wesley Hall knows that the food bank is a last resource for many of the guests he encounters. To hall, the food bank is truly governed by the people who need it most, noting that many volunteers have at one time been a guest of RVFB.
“Trying to get to the people that really, really need it is one of the reasons I’ve stayed at this food bank,” Hall says. “It’s community, up in here we’ve got a lot of people that volunteer that might otherwise be out on the street not helping nobody.”
For Hall, it is the epitome of people helping people.
“They come here, we ask what they want to be doing and we get them volunteering at the food bank,” he says.
Unfortunately, Fischer says, food banks are just a band-aid for a bigger issue, not a solution. Though RVFB is able to feed roughly 2,900 individuals every time 700 guests pass through on a distribution day, this provides only short-term immediate assistance.
“We need to look more long term,” Fischer says. “Hunger is a symptom of poverty so how do we really address what’s happening here?”