The shopping day at the Pike Market Food Bank (PMFB) drew to a close as the clock neared 3 p.m. Stanchions set up to queue people through Level 5 of the adjoining parking structure went unused as a dwindling number of shoppers moved down the row of shelves, picking up designated numbers of canned goods, fresh bread and as many onions and potatoes as they wanted to carry.
They then proceeded to the checkout, where a volunteer bagged their purchases. No money exchanged hands.
Not long ago, volunteers would have filtered in three days a week, pulling large metal tables close to the walls and piling on bins filled with goods. Clients would approach, request an item from volunteers and move down the line to another table with another good.
But then, the food bank shut down for 10 days. When it reopened, it was transformed into a market.
The shift has been good for clients and good for the food bank, said Stella Jones, the manager. The new efficiency of the market setup allows for lengthened opening hours the three days weekly.
“We can serve the same number of customers over a longer period of time,” Jones said. “It increases efficiency for the shoppers, staff and volunteers.”
PMFB is the newest in the network of Seattle and regional food banks to transform into the grocery store model, a setup that proponents say provides more dignity to shoppers. No longer do volunteers act as gatekeepers over food. Instead, they interact with shoppers at the “point of sale,” bagging items and conversing with clients about their food needs.
The $15,000 face-lift — funded by the Pike Place Market Foundation — nearly doubles the number of hours the market can stay open, Jones said, providing more flexibility to clients living in the market and downtown core.
To learn the new model, staff traveled to the SODO food bank to see how it was done.
The SODO Community Market made the shift in June 2019 when it built out a brand-new facility at the corner of Fourth Avenue South and South Holgate Street. It’s bigger than PMFB and rustic, its walls lined with pale wood planks, studded with holes where multilingual signs are pegged to describe the items on shelves underneath.
A refrigerated section lines the back wall next to two swinging doors that lead to the storage facility. Volunteers bagged prepared food items donated by Starbucks next to a large cold storage facility and across from bags of onion stacked five feet high.
The SODO Market was once the Cherry Street Food Bank on First Hill, which Northwest Harvest operated for nearly four decades before the sale of the building they were in, said Christina Wong, director of Public Policy & Advocacy at Northwest Harvest.
“We saw this as an opportunity to improve that service experience for people coming to our doors,” Wong said. “The grocery store model epitomizes what you would want to do as far as taking away as much stigma as possible out of asking for help.”
The organization planned for almost a year before carrying out their vision. They visited and volunteered at other locations that had made the switch in years prior, such as the Ballard Food Bank and University Food Bank, SODO Market Manager Jacob Sperati said.
“It’s really collaborative, also, among the food bank community, as we try to really learn from each other — what’s worked well, what the challenges have been,” Sperati said.
In the details
When shoppers enter the SODO Market, they see a space that looks much like a traditional grocery store — walls lined with shelves, a refrigerated area full of perishables and produce in the center. If customers empty a shelf, volunteers wheel it away and return with a fresh batch of product. Sperati stockpiles enough of each item so it can be replenished, ensuring a seamless customer experience.
The setup makes a difference for customers like Adam Nixon. As Nixon perused the refrigerated section, a volunteer emerged with new cartons of milk. He turned back and snagged a carton.
“Oh, there’s milk!” Nixon said. Nixon used to shop at the Cherry Street location. He comes to the SODO Market twice a week to get groceries. The new layout of the store appeals to him.
“I’m not sure how to define it,” Nixon said. “It’s brighter, a cleaner environment.”
The grocery store model is spreading. At least five different food banks in the Seattle area have made the switch. It can be more labor intensive, Sperati said, but ultimately worth it.
The SODO Market was fortunate in that when leadership decided to move to the grocery store model, it was able to do so from scratch in a brand-new space. A team of Coast Guard sailors that the food bank had supported during the government shutdown in 2019 helped install the shelving and build out the space.
As much as area food banks are changing, so are the systems that put food on the shelves.
Northwest Harvest is a food distributor in Washington state, meaning it makes partnerships and solicits donations that facilitate a steady supply of food flowing into hundreds of food banks all over the state.
It also means that Northwest Harvest needs a robust advocacy arm to protect the “emergency food system” and the people who depend on it.
For example, Northwest Harvest is actively campaigning for state lawmakers to purchase new refrigeration space to accommodate the massive increase in fresh produce, pork and dairy products that entered the food system as a result of the trade conflicts sparked by the Trump administration. High tariffs mean that a lot of products created by Washington farmers are not being sold on open markets and end up in food banks.
“When you think about front-line food pantry, they’re often small, volunteer-run, operated out of the basement of a church,” Wong said. “To accept more of that product, to keep it in good condition, it could be as simple as they need an additional refrigerator or freezer. Without that added capacity, they’re having to turn food away.”
They’re also looking for funding to maintain programs that help households who receive food benefits to buy more fruits and vegetables, and are championing a bill to help high-need schools eligible for a federal provision that allows them to do away with applications for free-and-reduced-price meals to get kids fed.
Washington state is a leader when it comes to food provision, Wong said, and all eyes are on us.
Leaving the SODO Market, people were lining up amid the stanchions set up to control the lines. In a state that ranks 34th in food insecurity and where one in eight Washingtonians need food benefits, food banks are essential.
Now, at least, they’re a bit more friendly.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC.
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