Everyone needs some assistance at one time or another, and that's why Northwest Harvest is there to help. With the busiest season for hunger underway, which lasts through the month of January, Northwest Harvest, Washington State's only statewide hunger relief agency, is in critical need of donations.
Washington State has the 16th highest median household income and the 20th lowest poverty rate in the nation, according to the 2005 U.S. Census Bureau, but 30 percent of Washington households meet the Economic Policy Institute's definition of low-income.
Nationally, about 1 in 5 Americans participates in one of the USDA's food assistance programs during the year. More than half of those served by Northwest Harvest partner food banks and meal programs are either children or elderly. An estimated 275,000 Washington households live with hunger or the threat of hunger.
"This is a really critical time of year for Northwest Harvest," said Claire Acey, director of Communications for Northwest Harvest. "We pull in about 60 percent of our revenue this time of year, so it's essential that we get the word out there and bring in support."
The 40-year-old organization supplies 18 million pounds of food, free of charge, yearly to 300 food banks and meal programs in 37 counties across the state. With their new food distribution warehouse opening next month in Kent, Acey says they will be able to double that and hopes to increase that goal to 36 million pounds of food secured annually in about eight years.
More than 93 percent of their budget goes directly to food distribution. While striving to provide healthy, nutritious, meals to their clients, fruits and vegetables made up 51.3 percent of all food distributed in the year 2006-2007.
Northwest Harvest can feed a meal to a family of three for just 53 cents.
"We can really stretch the donation, they don't have to be huge donations either, $5 dollars makes a huge difference," Acey said.
The food bank serves people of all backgrounds and races. Young and old, those suffering from layoffs, low-wage workers, families suffering a medial crisis and domestic violence victims.
"At our food bank here in Seattle we see a huge cultural diversity of people," Acey said. "We see a tremendous number of working poor, they're working two jobs, maybe three, and they're stopping by the food bank on their lunch break to stock up and bring some food home for their family," Acey said. "You have people that if you pass them on the street you'd have no idea they were in line at a food bank earlier."
Full-service days are Mondays and Wednesday and include boxed meals, pasta, canned vegetables. Tuesdays and Fridays offer bread and potatoes. On Thursdays, assistance is available for infants, providing formula, baby food and diapers, when available.
"We really push nutrition because more than half of the people that we serve are the children or the elderly and they're the ones that can least afford a compromised diet," Acey said.
Over 1,000 sack lunches are regularly distributed on full-service days. For those without cooking facilities, sack lunch packages are available with fresh-made sandwiches.
Cherry Street Food bank is the busiest food bank in the state serving over 2,000 people on full-service days. Northwest Harvest knows it can be difficult to ask for help, so they only ask basic information. No proof of address, income verification, social security number or need is required. Clients are only asked their last name, total number of people in their family and the number of those who are children, seniors or adults.
"It's about respecting people's dignity, "Acey said. "There's no shame in going to a food bank, for any of us."
Food with high-nutritional value, such as canned fruit and meats, pasta, brown rice, soups, stews, pork and beans, canned or powered milk and peanut butter are most needed as well as infant formula, baby food and diapers. And specialty foods — such as low-sodium soups and stews — are needed for those with dietary restrictions.
"We love this time of year because people always remember us but we need donations year-round, especially during late spring and early summer," Acey said. "We encourage people to remember us year-round because hunger, unfortunately, does not go away."
Volunteers are always welcome at the Cherry Street Food Bank and at the warehouse. "The number of hours volunteers contributed last year was the equivalent of 22 full-time employees which is amazing considering we only have 51," Acey added. "They do a tremendous amount of work and we couldn't do it without them."
Acey said the volunteer warehouse opportunities are great fun for families and offer a way to give back to their communities. "Kids love it and we have regulars who come down to sort food," Acey said. "Parents can bring their kids down and work side by side, sorting dry beans and rice into bags and it's a great experience for the whole family."
Locally, you can drop off donated food at the Cherry Street Food Bank located at 711 Cherry St.