March 14th, 2010 05:33 PM
|SANDPOINT — He opens the door and stands aside to let her enter, sweeping his hand in a slow, grand arc that makes her smile. He smiles back, but as she passes, he casts a furtive look over his shoulder.|
After all, they wouldn’t want anyone to see them going into this place. Both of them are dressed nicely, even if they do happen to be wearing fashions that saw their day some years ago. It has always been a habit with them, dressing up, even to go out for groceries. And so it was on this late-winter morning.
It’s just that, after such a long time in the workforce and so many years as a couple, they never thought they’d be among those who had to pass through this door. They never imagined they would be getting help from the food bank.
This couple — which really did make such an entrance last week — is part of the more than 100 percent increase in senior citizens who now rely on the Bonner Community Food Center to get enough to eat. It is a relatively recent trend, according to executive director Alice Wallace.
“When the seniors started coming in larger numbers, we knew how tough the economy had gotten,” she said. “These are very proud people who aren’t used to asking for assistance, but they can only go so long before they need help.”
Until about a year ago, this population represented only a small segment of the food bank’s clientele. But the numbers began to creep up as the downturn deepened, until seniors — the last crack in the economic wall — began showing up in force.
“Our numbers used to run about 250 seniors a month,” said Wallace, whose mother, Florence Carter, helped to start the food bank in 1980. “Now it’s about 550 a month coming in.”
Hard times have driven another kind of customer the food bank’s way — those who have jobs and still go hungry in order to keep up with bills.
Wallace shared the story of a couple who parked outside at closing time and sat in their vehicle for a long while, obviously reluctant to cross a threshold that carried some deeper meaning for them. When they hesitated at the front door, she opened it to greet them.
“They immediately said, ‘Oh, you’re closing — we’ll come back tomorrow,’” Wallace said. “But I had seen this kind of reaction before and I knew they wouldn’t come back. I told them, ‘No, I want to help you right now.’
“It turned out that they were both working and they had been eating nothing but top ramen for the last two months.”
Total demand for food bank assistance has climbed 20 percent over the same period a year ago, with an average of 4,150 clients per month stopping by for food boxes — a growth rate of about 150 new clients every month. With that increase, the composition of the clientele has started to shift toward families who formerly would have been considered middle-income.
“We are seeing people from all walks of life now who are coming in for help,” Wallace said. “There are employees from some of our largest employers who recently lost a job, seasonal workers and people who have had their hours cut.
“And when their hours are cut back, their car payment and their bills start to go into arrears,” she added. “These families are living month-to-month.”
Depending on family size, food bank clients receive a food box weighing between 150-175 pounds at 90-day intervals. Those boxes used to be stocked with identical staples, packed in advance by volunteers. Earlier this year, however, the organization shifted its approach to better accommodate different eating habits and food preferences.
“Now we give them a ‘grocery list’ of items we have in stock and have them check the things they want us to put in their box,” said Wallace.
“I’ve heard some people say, ‘If they’re hungry enough, they’ll eat whatever they’re lucky enough to get,’” the executive director went on. “But these people didn’t do anything bad to get in their predicament. It’s hard enough to come in here anyway, so why not let them have some say in what they get to eat?”
In 2009, the Bonner Community Food Center received 329,000 pounds of donated food, valued at more than $700,000, from individuals and grocery stores. The largest contributors have been the local Safeway and Wal-Mart stores, which donated approximately 150,000 pounds each last year.
Starting this month, food bank clients must adhere to more stringent paperwork requirements than in the past, showing proof of residency in Bonner County and proof of family income. To receive food assistance, household income cannot be higher than $1,200 per month for a single resident, with each additional family member adding $415 to that monthly total.
Fortunately, the supply of food from local donors, as well as from organizations such as 2nd Harvest in Spokane, has kept up with growing demand. The thing that has fallen behind, according to the executive director, is the facility’s capacity to store the necessary amount of food.
When a 2nd Harvest truck arrived on Monday with 7,000 pounds of food, volunteers spent more time shuffling pallets around to make room for the delivery than they actually spent stocking shelves. The stock room, which measures 400 square feet, had to be shuffled and reorganized several times to get the job done. If the delivery includes a large amount of frozen food, the staff has to cram a limited number of freezers as full as possible and hustle the rest of the food out to clients to ensure nothing gets spoiled.
“That’s our real problem — we’re running out of places to stock the amount of food we need to feed all of the people who want it,” Wallace said. “This current building is about 3,000 square feet and we could easily use three times that much space.
“We’re looking at grant opportunities, but, in a perfect world, someone would come in and say, ‘I have a 10,000-square-foot building that I want to donate to the food bank.”
Wallace has little tolerance for people who look down on her food bank clients and none at all for people who attempt to game her system at the food bank or take advantage of its services. With new paperwork requirements, she has cracked down on those who attempt to pad the number of family members or fudge on household income. And because the food bank is run as a non-profit organization that has no affiliation with local government and does not rely on taxpayer dollars, Wallace has the freedom to speak her mind when she needs to.
“People sometimes come in here with an attitude and say things like, ‘You’re the Bonner County Food Bank — you have to give me free food. I have a right to it,’” she said. “I let them know it’s the community food bank; we’re not funded by the county or the state. A right to free food? I don’t think so. You have a right to breathe, but if you breathe wrong in here, I’ll kick your butt right out.”
Probably true, but there is a huge soft spot that keeps Alice Wallace coming to work. As executive director, she oversees the food bank’s annual Coats for Kids outreach to put warm winter coats, hats and gloves on children from lower income households. More recently, the organization began its “backpack program” — a $20,000 a year effort to aid select children on the school district’s free and reduced lunch program who may not be getting regular meals over the weekend when they’re not in school.
More powerful than any box of food is the message that getting out of poverty is the real answer to staving off hunger, Wallace pointed out.
“I can say things to people that someone working for a government agency wouldn’t be able to, so it’s nice that way,” she said. “I had one girl come in with her mother and say to me, ‘I started coming here with my grandmother when I was little.’
“I pulled her aside and told her, ‘Don’t start this. Get your education and break this cycle. It’s a vicious cycle and you don’t want to get caught up in it.”