ARLINGTON, Wash. — Food banks in western Washington are bracing for the unknown as another winter approaches amid the pandemic and health officials are warning of a potential sixth wave of the virus.
Luckily, agencies helping to combat hunger say they're using lessons learned over the past 19 months to get ready for whatever may be ahead.
"We learned a lot through COVID. How to pivot. How to make something happen out of nothing," said Chris Hatch, the senior director of Hunger Prevention for Volunteers of America Western Washington. "Last year we didn't know day to day what the need was going to be. We are just making sure that we are prepared for whatever does come up."
Prior to the pandemic, Volunteers of America would distribute 3.6 million pounds of food to the community, annually. Since then, that number has more than doubled to 7.9 million pounds.
Last year, with unemployment at historic levels and millions in need, Volunteers of America took over an entire vacant grocery store to deliver food to the hungry.
But even that wasn't enough. The organization still ended up having to turn away entire truckloads of food because it didn't have the space.
"It was heartbreaking," said Operations Director Dean Johnson, "but we only had so many resources."
This year, Volunteers of America is moving into a massive Arlington warehouse that will allow it to store and distribute much more food.
"COVID threw us a curveball," said Johnson. "Hopefully this will be a game changer."
According to a study by the University of Washington and Washington State University, 29% of Washingtonians needed help getting food before coronavirus hit. That number is now up to 42%.
Just how many people will need help this winter is a complete unknown. Rising prices are making it difficult for both consumers and charities to buy food, and there are trucking and shipping issues as well.
"We're not necessarily foreseeing there is going to be an issue with food coming in, but rumors being rumors we don't know what to expect," said Hatch.
The new Arlington warehouse, complete with two industrial coolers and a dozen trucking bays, was supposed to open in August, but labor and supply chain shortages have pushed that back until after Thanksgiving.
Volunteers of America is hoping to have it operational by Dec. 1.
In the meantime, work will continue at the nonprofit's various food banks in Snohomish County and beyond.
"All we can do is get this space ready to go for whether it's the next round of the pandemic or anything else," said Hatch. "We weren't ready when this hit last year and I feel like we should've been. This is what we are gearing up to do."
KING 5’s annual Home Team Harvest drive to benefit Northwest Harvest is underway. This year’s goal is to raise 21 million meals. Ways to donate: Online at king5.com/hometeamhavest, text “HOMETEAM” to 41444 or starting Nov. 1, visit your local Safeway or Albertson’s to give $5, $10 or $12 toward grocery cards.
Watch the Home Team Harvest broadcast special on Dec. 4 at 10 a.m. on KING 5, king5.com and the KING 5 mobile app.