The year was 1971, the quote from Peggy Maze, director of one of the food banks operating in King County: "Even when the economy picks up, there are always people living like this. They are there. No one wanted to notice them before." "Like this" references a circumstance that today we would call food insecurity; then it was simply called hunger. An organization supporting a network of neighborhood food banks, Neighbors in Need, was established in the fall of 1970 in response to the "Boeing Bust." It, along with other efforts, set out to address the rapidly-increasing demand for food in King County. Boeing recovered within a decade, headed for another boom in the late 1970s, but the numbers of hungry did not diminish. If anything, demand for food assistance has been on relatively continual growth since then, with news stories over the years about another record-breaking year for pounds of food disbursed or number of people served. The early 1970s do not mark the beginning of hunger being an issue in King County. Some small, generally church-based efforts had long supported parishioners and neighbors when food in their home was scarce, among them St. Mary's Church in the Central District. The impact of that era was that it forced a more open acknowledgement that hunger was a reality, and that formal programs were needed to combat it.
Spurred by the "Boeing Bust"
Over the course of three years, job cuts at Boeing -- 25,000 in 1969, 41,000 in 1970, and 20,000 in 1971 -- had an outsized impact on the region, at a time when the local economy was particularly reliant on a single employer. This era is what prompted the famous billboard near Sea-Tac airport stating "Will the last person leaving Seattle -- Turn out the lights," put up in spring of 1971.
These swelling ranks of unemployed came to be called "the new poor" and made abundantly clear that not everyone, whether "old" poor or new, had enough to eat on a regular basis. An interesting aspect of the Boeing-related job cuts was how drastically and quickly financial fortunes had changed. Those who owned homes and had other assets could be ineligible for public assistance programs and food stamps. So as unemployment benefits ran out, increasing numbers turned to food banks. "Society is not prepared to think of a middle-class suburban home owner with two cars in the garage as being in need of outside help to put food on the table" (Senate report, 16).
Demand for food assistance quickly began to strain the smaller volunteer efforts throughout the region. Many organizations and individuals mobilized to help feed the growing population of unemployed. By fall of 1970, the Church Council of Greater Seattle had deemed food relief to be an area of special focus for that winter, with plans to establish emergency food banks organized at the community level, in neighborhoods throughout Seattle. But it wasn't long before what was thought to be temporary emergency measures to weather a particularly dire economic spell were understood to be not so temporary after all. The Presbyterian Synod of Washington-Alaska sent President Richard Nixon a telegram to this effect, which read in part, "church-sponsored food banks serving emergency needs of 20,000 monthly. $750,000 in food has been given by churches. Religious community of Seattle unable to meet growing needs unaided" (Senate report, 9).
Local government officials also sought national intervention. They appealed to the U.S. Senate's Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, which, after review of data and on-site visits to the region, produced a report entitled "Seattle: Unemployment, The New Poor, and Hunger" in December 1971. At the time, the report states, the 34 food banks overseen by Neighbors in Need had served 300,000 people since operations began the prior year, estimated to be 12,000 people per week at time of the report.
Another grim detail the Senate report shared is that in June 1971 Seattle hit an unemployment rate of 15.7 percent, "a 156-percent increase from June 1970, and the most severe in the Nation for a metropolitan area" (Senate report, 6).
Expansion of Food Banks
At the annual fall assembly dinner of the Church Council of Great Seattle in September 1970, Rev. Harold Perry told those in attendance of plans to establish an emergency food bank program to serve the region's hungry. The proposal for "Neighbors in Need" envisioned about 30 food banks in different areas of greater Seattle, each with its own food collection and distribution location. He acknowledged that simply supplying food wouldn't solve the hunger problem, but said that "to do nothing because you cannot do everything is immoral." One potential benefit, he said, was that the program could help with "a growing awareness of the necessity to make changes guaranteeing the right to eat" ("Food sought ..."). Congregations would be encouraged to aid in gathering food for distribution.
With 10,000 due to have unemployment compensation expire at the end of November 1970, Neighbors in Need hoped to have food banks in operation by mid-November; some were open before then. Foods sought for donation included canned food, canned and powdered milk, margarine, and packaged dinners. Community support quickly grew, with civic organizations helping volunteer; teenagers collecting food instead of candy at Halloween; and grocery stores donating product, such as the 800 50-pound bags of potatoes that a youth group helped re-portion for individual food banks.
Less than a year after the program was established, it became clear that what "had been begun as a temporary program ... now appeared it would be a long-time program" ("Church Council Asks ..."). Resources wore thin. With inconsistent sources of food, some food banks reduced days of operation when stock was low, to have enough available when they were open. Organizers wondered how much stamina their volunteer pools would have for sustaining the work for the long term.
One beneficial change that arose was passage of the Good Samaritan Bill, signed into law by Governor Dixy Lee Ray in March 1979. The law "relieves supermarkets and other food industry firms from potential liability in the donation of surplus foodstuffs" ("Hunger Stalks ..."). It opened doors to significant new donation channels for food banks. High-volume donations, however, would be beyond the capacity of individual food banks to manage, so new organizations soon emerged to help connect the dots.
A particularly low ebb occurred the summer of 1980 when just four of Seattle's 31 food banks had provisions enough to have bags of food to offer those in need. It was around this time that Food Oversight-Operation Distribution (FOOD) was formed. This organization was inspired by testimony from Seattle food-bank members before the state senate's Social and Health Services Committee. They said they felt there were enough food banks to accommodate those in need but what they lacked was "efficient solicitation of food donation and coordination of food distribution" ("FOOD -- A New Force ..."). FOOD stepped up to solicit large donations from processors, brokers, and other food businesses that had extra food. Food banks then received smaller portions of the donations, in volumes they could manage for storing and distribution.
Northwest Second Harvest was established in 1979 by the Ecumenical Metropolitan Ministry, giving over a ton of food to food banks in March 1979. The program was spurred in part by anticipation of the new Good Samaritan law's passage. With similar intentions to that of FOOD, Northwest Second Harvest aimed to facilitate collection of donated foods to be in turn distributed to area food banks. These and other new programs helped temper the slow dissolution of Neighbors in Need.
Through the 1970s, Neighbors in Need had experienced a range of highs and lows. Impact the organization had on jump-starting the culture of food banks in the region is clear. But challenges both internal and external saw its operations begin to phase out in the latter part of the decade.
As Neighbors in Need waned, independently-operated food banks began opening in the 1980s. Among them are the University District Food Bank, which opened in May 1983, and the West Seattle Food Bank in October of that year. (This is on the heels of another time when "new poor" was used to describe a new influx of people seeking food relief.) Many food banks have histories that may include fits and starts as operations evolved, changes in affiliations with churches or civic groups, or changes in name or location. Precise opening dates for some may be fluid, depending on which point of their dynamic evolution is considered. Many have some thread of backstory that echoes the powerful demand for food relief that the Boeing Bust exposed.
The Food Oversight-Operation Distribution organization changed its name to Food Lifeline in 1986, and is today an important resource for food distributed to food banks in King County and throughout Western Washington. Northwest Second Harvest became simply Northwest Harvest in 1984, another important resource that helps fight hunger through support of food banks, locally and statewide.
Three organizations oversee different geographic sections of King County's 47-plus food banks today  -- Solid Ground (Seattle area), South King County Food Coalition, and Hopelink (North and East King County). There are likely some small food banks that operate outside those networks, but the bulk of food bank activity is covered by their scope. Data from 2020 and 2021 may not be complete due to COVID-19-related limits on data collection, so actual figures are likely higher, but for the fiscal year ending in June 2021, King County food banks distributed more than 46.3 million pounds of food to about 1.2 million households.
In the early days of providing food relief, it was an accomplishment to put any food in the hands of the hungry. Because the first food banks so often had little storage space and limited, if any, refrigeration, there was strong reliance on shelf-stable products. Canned, dried, and boxed foods were the norm. Often, whatever was available was boxed or bagged and handed out to food-bank patrons, very little choice as part of the equation.
Over time, more attention was placed on the experience people have when visiting a food bank, becoming less of an anonymous and somewhat institutional act of charity, and more of a welcoming, personalized experience for visitors. Though addressing COVID-19 safety protocols has meant temporary adjustments, food banks that have the space and volunteer help to do so are offering more of a grocery-store-like setting for food distribution. Other models that may be part of the mix include home delivery, off-site mobile food banks, and walk-up windows.
There is a general recognition that providing food to individuals, while extraordinarily valuable in their day-to-day lives, does not cure the root causes of food insecurity. Many food-bank programs provide, in addition to food, resources that can help solve other problems and help increase overall stability in people's lives. Whether directly or in partnership with other organizations, this may include clothing banks, housing and job assistance, childcare resources, transportation, and food and supplies for pets.
There has also been increased attention on offering foods that are culturally appropriate for their clients, such as familiar vegetables, halal meat, or special foods associated with important holidays. And recognizing that some who lack resources to feed themselves also don't have a kitchen or place to store foods, food banks may offer no-cook bags with items that are ready to eat and don't require refrigeration. Along with the multifaceted services now available at food banks, there can be an increased sense of community that adds value to the food-bank experience, making them a central point of personal engagement in many respects.
Locally Grown Contributions
The connection between those growing food in the area and those in need of more healthful, nutritious food predates 1970. But that was the year when the connection was accentuated. A University of Washington student asked her neighbors, the Picardo family, if she could use a small section of their farm plot in northeast Seattle as a community garden. Her plan was to enlist neighborhood families to help grow produce that would be delivered to the nearby Neighbors In Need food bank. The idea blossomed and flourished, and within a few years developed into Seattle's beloved P-Patch program. There are now 90 P-Patches in Seattle and in 2021 their gardeners donated more than 41,000 pounds of organic produce to food banks and meal programs throughout Seattle.
Another early source of locally-grown produce for food banks was Operation First Harvest. Begun in 1982 by the Rotary Club of the University District, this effort asked gardeners to plant an extra row or two in their gardens, with the added harvest to be donated to nearby food banks. "If you can get a thousand people to donate just a little, then you can get a whole lot done," said the program's chairman, Mike Shanahan ("Extra Food ..."). As the program grew it included sourcing produce from farmers and processors that might otherwise go to waste, for distribution to food banks and other food relief services. Now 40 years later, it is known as Harvest Against Hunger, which mobilizes volunteers and resources to help collect food from farmers and get it to those in need across Washington and beyond.
Harvest Against Hunger administers the King County Farmers Share program, begun in 2019 to facilitate direct contracting relationships between the county's farmers and food banks. The food banks receive funding to use for the purchases and can select from among participating farms to contract with, choosing produce most suited to their needs and requests from their clients. In its inaugural year, King County Farmers Share helped facilitate purchases from 24 King County farms to be used by 12 food banks and meal programs. Those numbers increased to 51 farms and 35 food banks and meal programs in 2020.
Some food banks make the farm-to-customer connection a particularly close one, with gardens of their own, in scales large and small. The University District Food Bank's rooftop garden provides a drop in its annual bucket of 2.5 to 3 million pounds of food distributed each year, but food they grow on-site serves many purposes. It becomes a point of conversation with customers about agriculture and what it takes to build a healthy food system. And it provides educational opportunities, with hands-on programs with customers and community groups.
In Maple Valley, Elk Run Farm was established by the South King County Food Coalition in 2015 on part of a former golf course. The 4.5 acres not only supply South King County food banks with locally-harvested produce, but the farm also draws students from the plant-sciences program at Tahoma High School for hands-on experience, among other opportunities for community engagement.
Food Banks in the Pandemic Era
Almost by definition, food banks are in the business of problem-solving, driven to do what they can every day to help alleviate food insecurity. Being resilient, flexible, creative, and resourceful is part of work, with food supplies, funding, demand, regulations, and other logistical factor often in flux. The pandemic amplified the variability of all those factors, and shifted food banks' problem-solving skills into overdrive.
With a core activity of food banks being the distribution of food, a critic initial problem was how to get food to clients, taking into account evolving understanding of safety protocols. It may have required trying a few options to determine which suited each food bank's situation best, but all-delivery, no-contact drive-through, outdoor distanced pick-up, and walk-up windows were among the models employed. All while dealing with heavy increases in demand.
For Hopelink, which operates five food banks in North and East King County, the pivot was from the grocery model to boxes of shelf-stable and fresh foods. From March 2020 to mid-January 2022, they had distributed over 200,000 such boxes.
Supply-chain issues were a universal challenge, requiring even more resourcefulness of food banks to keep supplies regularly stocked. One area where there was instead some increase in supply was locally-grown produce. With restaurant and farmers market business drastically reduced, local farmers had large surpluses of harvest. Programs such as King County Farmers Share could ramp up efforts to gather excess produce from farmers and distribute it to food-relief programs.
Among programs developed in response to the pandemic is EastWest Food Rescue, which began with a Facebook post about helping rescue a couple thousand pounds of crops that risked going to waste, transporting them to food banks instead. Within the first 15 days, 217 tons of food had been gathered from area farms. In the first 10 months of 2020, the program had directed more than 5.5 million pounds of produce to food banks and other food-relief programs in King County, serving other Washington counties as well.
In the midst of the pandemic disruption, two Seattle food banks managed moves in to new, larger facilities. The Ballard Food Bank opened in its new 11,000-square-foot property in October 2021, doubling its previous space with a large warehouse, grocery-style layout for customers, garden, and even a café for gathering. In November 2021, Rainier Valley Food Bank moved from a 1,200-square-foot facility to a new home that, after a couple of years of renovations, will include over 10,000 square feet, where they'll be able to offer more diverse services and programs.
The pandemic has been a devastating challenge, and at the time of this writing it is still in play, in the wake of Omicron surges and with uncertainty about what more may be around the corner. Food banks barely skipped a beat in addressing extraordinary demands the pandemic produced while continuing to provide food, care, community, empathy, dignity, and compassion to those they serve. The Boeing Bust and COVID-19 make for striking historical 50-year markers in this span of King County food banks' history.