Within the throes of farmers markets and increasing trends of locally sourced produce, and despite Seattle’s growing economy, one in seven people are struggling with hunger.
As longer lines are formed around Seattle’s food banks and shelters, the overarching disparity between class, race and food insecurity — an involuntary lack of food — is a reality in King County. Washington is one of only three states where poverty has increased since 2013, ranking 22nd as the hungriest state in the nation.
“There’s a myth that Seattle is a wealthy city and, therefore, we don’t have a problem with hunger,” said Elizabeth Kimball, program manager at Public Health Seattle and King County. “There are real life circumstances that people face in life with a variety of factors that may lead them to be food insecure.”
The United States Department of Agriculture (usda) defines “food insecure” as having a consistent lack of access to adequate and nutritious food. “Food hardship” is defined by the Food Research and Action Center (frac) as anyone responding ‘yes’ to the question, “Have there been times in the past 12 months when you did not have enough money to buy food that you or your family needed?”
African-American and Hispanic communities here experience food insecurity at a disproportionately higher rate than the national average, according to the USDA.
In King County, African Americans and Hispanics, combined, make up 15 percent of the total population and yet fall below the poverty rate at 50 percent, according to United Way of King County in its most recent report published in 2015. In contrast, whites make up more than half of the population at 72.2 percent, with only 8.2 percent living below the poverty rate.
The correlation between poverty and food insecurity in King County is staggeringly high among racial groups: Hispanics and African Americans are, respectively, 38 and 21 percent more likely than whites to experience food hardship, according to Communities Count, a Seattle-based organization that monitors social and health indicators across King County.
“There isn’t one answer as to why minorities experience higher rates of food insecurity,” said Kimball. “You have to consider what the history is in this country from racism, oppression and social inequities placed in our system that ultimately affects lives today.”
As food hardship rises in ethnic communities, so do obesity rates. Neighborhoods with a high-diversity population, such as Delridge, Rainier Valley, Rainier Beach, downtown and the Central District, also experience disproportionate negative diet-related health outcomes such as diabetes and heart disease, according to Public Health Seattle and King County.
“The type of foods that are cheap are highly processed and sold in fast food restaurants that are located mainly in low-income neighborhoods,” said Kimball. “People can also fall into the cycle of food-stamp benefits, where money runs out after buying two weeks worth of groceries, forcing families to supplement with food banks.”
Kimball has witnessed the notion of feast or famine — a mental and physical reaction where food-insecure individuals experience the uncontrollable urge to eat as much as possible — since they don’t know how long it will be until their next meal.
According to the most recent usda Household Food Security report, 32.6 percent of African-American households with children, and 28 percent of Hispanic families experienced food hardship. In Washington state, that’s one in every three African-American children while only one in every seven white children.
The increase in food insecurity and hardship in King County is due in part to $39 billion in budget cuts to food-stamp programs made in 2013, resulting in more than $12 billion slashed in food-assistance programs and services in the state. The rise in rent and cost of living in Seattle, and decreased funding for public transportation, are also factors.
In a qualitative study conducted by the Seattle Women’s Commission last year, nearly 46 percent of women responded that the most common mode of transportation for food-bank users was by bus, followed by driving and walking, and the main barriers to eating a healthy diet was that it’s too expensive. Thirty-one percent of respondents said if they could change one thing, they’d want an affordable farmers market within walking distance.
“Food can become the lowest priority when it’s up against housing, transportation to and from work, childcare or medication,” said Jesse Swingle, communications manager at Northwest Harvest.
Founded in 1967, the nonprofit works with a network of more than 370 food banks providing meals and ensuring adequate food assistance in the state. It provides more than 2 million meals every month and distributes more than 32 million pounds of food annually.
Racial equity and cultural sensitivity are taken into consideration when Northwest Harvest’s Cherry Street Food Bank in Seattle’s First Hill neighborhood accepts food donations. Foodbank Manager Anthony Brown estimates 70 to 75 percent of visitors are immigrants.
“We work to provide culturally appropriate foods to our partners around the state, many of which serve unique communities in their region,” said Swingle. “We have increased efforts to acquire these foods or find acceptable substitutes, paired with cooking classes.”
Northwest Harvest is working to make Washington the first state to eliminate food insecurity. Its food bank gives free tours to educate community members and increase awareness about poverty and food hardship.
“Poverty in our state grew last year, but many of us don’t feel it here in the Seattle area,” said Swingle. “My favorite game walking home to Belltown from First Hill is to count the Teslas.”
Women in Delridge, in a 2014 Seattle Women’s Commission, report proposed implementing permanent affordable healthy food retail, improving transportation options and increasing economic opportunity. The goal is to increase food access by helping low-income women acquire higher-paying jobs that allow for adequate housing and food accessibility.
For Kimball, something to consider when thinking of ways to fight poverty and food insecurity is a combination of factors from history and race that creates a system of oppression.
“It’s daunting because how do we get rid of poverty, racism, social exclusion and oppression?” Kimball said. “With any community problem, we have to look at it from two sides: one from the federal government and policies concerning poverty and racial disparities, and the other from the grassroots community-level approach in getting people together.”