Over the past six months, community organizations have distributed 15 million pounds of food to community members across the region as part of Public Health – Seattle & King County’s (PHSKC) Food Security Assistance Program (FSAP). The $5.4-million-dollar initiative, funded by federal COVID-19 emergency relief money, helped as many as 10,000 people a month, according to Sara Seelmeyer, the senior manager of food security and benefits for United Way of King County.
However, even as Washington’s state of emergency around COVID-19 ends, food systems workers said that food insecurity remains higher than pre-pandemic levels. According to data from PHSKC, more than 116,000 households relied on the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) as of August 2022, compared to approximately 98,000 households in February 2020.
Because FSAP is funded by one-time American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) dollars, the program is set to end on Dec. 31, 2022. Food service providers worry that many families might go hungry as programs like FSAP sunset or get scaled back while food prices increase rapidly. The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported that food-related inflation in the Seattle area increased by 11.6 percent between August 2021 and August 2022.
The food security program tasked United Way to manage contracts with 35 different small and medium nonprofit organizations that distributed food in a variety of ways to their community members. From the funding, just under half a million dollars went to United Way for administering the program, half a million dollars went to a fresh produce distribution program with Cascadia Produce and $4.445 million went to the 35 community organizations directly. Organizations were required to spend at least three quarters of that money on the food they were distributing.
One of the main stipulations of the program was to increase access to culturally relevant food, especially in immigrant, refugee, Black and Indigenous communities that are disproportionately affected by food insecurity due to structural racism.
According to Roxana Pardo Garcia, the co-founder and executive director of Alimentando al Pueblo, culturally relevant food is crucial for multiple reasons.
“The first [reason] — the practical one — it reduces food waste,” Garcia said. “If you get people the food that they eat, the likelihood of them throwing that out is very slim or nonexistent.”
Garcia added that culturally relevant food can bring joy to people and inspire happy memories from people’s childhood. She also said that, even though the pandemic is ending, most of the long-term aftereffects are yet to be realized.
“As a community that has been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic … it’s incredibly important for us to cultivate a culture of care,” Garcia said.
Founded in 2020, amid the pandemic, Alimentando al Pueblo is the first Latine food bank in the region, serving about 200 to 300 families in South King County every two weeks. As part of FSAP, the organization received $100,000, which helped it purchase food as well as create a joyful atmosphere during distribution days. Garcia said that the organization sometimes books local musical artists or purchases bouquets of flowers from Hmong farmers to give out alongside food.
“We’re really trying to transform that experience, because it is not our community’s fault, nor is it the fault of our collective culture, that food insecurity exists in our community,” she said.
Another organization that launched creative programs to address food insecurity during the pandemic is the Seattle Good Business Network (SGBN). When stores and restaurants were forced to close or operate on a takeout-only basis at the start of the COVID-19 emergency, some chefs, such as Melissa Miranda of Musang and Kristi Brown of Communion and That Brown Girl Cooks!, shifted their kitchens to feed fellow community members in need, running on donations and their own money.
Seeing these efforts by local businesses, SGBN sought to help fund the program and make it more sustainable with local and state grants. Using mainly ARPA funds, SGBN pays more than 40 local restaurants and chefs $10 per plate to distribute 8,000 meals a month to community members. Among the many beneficiaries are Real Change vendors, who receive meal donations from Musang every month.
Mariah DeLeo, the good food economy project manager at SGBN, said that, in addition to feeding people, the program also helps businesses stay afloat and keep workers employed.
Another organization that participated in FSAP is UTOPIA Washington, which provided gift cards and culturally appropriate food boxes to more than 2,000 Pacific Islanders and other community members of color.
Elizabeth Kimball, a program manager at PHSKC, said that organizations in FSAP have made 2 million contacts since April 2022, when the organizations began distributing food. However, Kimball said that the program will likely end unless the King County Council decides to appropriate local taxpayer dollars to save it. Kimball is preparing a report to the council and county executive with needs and recommendations, which is due by Feb. 7.
While it’s uncertain if this social safety net that was built up during the pandemic will survive to 2023, hunger and food insecurity needs are even greater than just a few years ago. Jen Muzia, executive director of the Ballard Food Bank, said their organization now regularly serves 6,000 households a month — double the amount of people they served before COVID-19.
Due to inflation and supply chain issues, sourcing ingredients and produce for distribution is getting more and more expensive.
“I just had a staff meeting before this [interview], and someone mentioned that in the past three weeks, broccoli went up $30, just for a 20-pound bag,” Muzia said. “So, it jumped from $44 to $70 for a 20-pound bag.”
For culturally relevant foods that have to be imported, supply chain issues are even more acute.
One respite from inflation is for people who receive SNAP. At the start of October, the U.S. Department of Agriculture increased benefits by 12.5 percent to account for inflation.
However, families could also see their SNAP benefits cut significantly starting this December due to the end of Washington’s coronavirus state of emergency. According to a spokesperson from Washington’s Department of Social and Health Services, this change could cost the average family who receives SNAP benefits $175 a month. The state is still requesting the federal government to renew these emergency allotments, but right now it does not expect them to be extended.
Seelmeyer is concerned that food banks and other service providers won’t be able to keep up with the projected increase in need as social service programs get rolled back this winter.
“I think, if SNAP allotments decrease, we’re going to see far more people who need to rely on the emergency food system,” she said. “And I’m really concerned about whether the emergency food system has the capacity to support that need.”
Disclosure: Real Change receives funding from King County for articles in this series. The county receives no advance notice of articles or editorial control.
Read more of the Oct. 26-Nov. 1, 2022 issue.