In Washington state’s new food warehouse, there’s enough Jif peanut butter to make nearly 3 million sandwiches. Barilla pasta boxes stretch to the ceiling, 100,000 in all. Large stacks of TreeTop applesauce, pancake mix and canned green beans sit on pallets, like soldiers waiting to be sent into duty. Since the coronavirus crisis first rocked Washington in March, nonprofits and state agencies working in food assistance have been forced to draw a completely new road map for getting food to people who need it.
The warehouse in Fife is part of that new model. After seeing food banks struggle to meet demand once the pandemic hit and the economy tanked, the Washington state Department of Agriculture (WSDA) began preparing to buy and stockpile tons of food to ward off a shortage in the months ahead. The new stockpile is driven by two major factors: A nearly doubling in demand for food assistance across the state and a national food supply chain that is bogged down amid an overwhelming surge in demand.
As many as 2.2 million Washingtonians — about 30% of the state’s population — are facing food insecurity, according to Katie Rains, WSDA food policy advisor. That’s more than double the 850,000 state residents who sought help from food assistance programs last November, before the pandemic. “We’ve been in this very desperate situation starting toward the end of March,” said WSDA Director Derek Sandison. “This [warehouse] is a continuation of our efforts to make sure we have fusions of product that will help us to continue to weather the storm.”
The storm took hold in mid-April, Sandison said during a tour of the warehouse on Friday. That’s when the state’s three main food bank distributors — Food Lifeline, Northwest Harvest and Second Harvest — told the WSDA that based on the spike in requests for food assistance, the organizations had roughly a two-week supply of food for hunger relief. “We went into panic mode,” Sandison said. “That’s not an exaggeration. … So we jumped in with both feet and started active procurement on our end.” But as the WSDA was trying to buy as much nonperishable food as it could to increase the state’s emergency reserves, so was everyone else.
Not only was the WSDA competing with other states and large national food-assistance programs, it also faced competition from grocery stores as national supplies of products such as pasta and peanut butter were becoming increasingly hard to come by. “Peanut butter was a very highly wanted and needed commodity,” said Gary Newte, sourcing and product director for Northwest Harvest. “Peanut butter prices have probably tripled in the last three to four months.” – Seattle Times