Emergency Food Network is as busy as Santa’s workshop these days, as volunteers shuttle tons of food from donation sites to food banks around Puget Sound. The flow of Thanksgiving donations hasn’t created empty space to build up stocks of canned beans and boxes of stuffing mix for the holiday food blitz. It’s just always busy. But the warehouse is ramped up a notch this time of year. EFN’s Distribution Manager Ken Huss calls it the “seasonal swing” because about 30 percent of the community food drives come during the holiday season.
“We actually need more during the summer,” he said, noting that the end of school cuts off many children from free and reduced lunch programs and taxes family budgets because of added childcare costs that are more than the seasonal spikes in heating bills during the winter months.
EFN provides food to 68 food banks around Puget Sound and handles about a million and a half tons of food a month. November and December peak at about 1.7 tons to end the year with more than 15 tons of food. This is largely due to bulk donations from produce farmers and grocery stores as well as large food buys that allow EFN to purchase $12 worth of food for each $1 in donations.
“Sometimes we do a lot better with that dollar,” Huss said. “A lot better.”
One factor that is causing fear in that flow of food is that grocery stores that had been donating their canned goods and unsold, but still eatable, food to EFN for the tax write offs are now increasingly selling such items to discount grocery outlets instead. Grocery store donations are down more than 25 percent and are not being replaced with community food drive donations.
“There is nothing we can do to stop that,” Huss said. “That gap is just not being filled.”
Even with signs showing a slowly recovering economy, the number of people in need continues to grow as the “second wave” of people find themselves without enough money to cover basic needs. County statistics show that about one in eight residents is living at, or near, the poverty line. The first upsurge started in the early months of the recession as the housing market imploded and companies laid off workers. That wave continued for years. The second wave of people, Huss said, is now coming in for food to feed their families. These people have largely found jobs but their incomes are significantly down from their pre-recession paychecks.
“It was new to me to see single moms at the food bank after working all day so they can have food for dinner that night,” he said.