Funding crisis reveals disparities between area food banks

Just a few weeks ago Northwest Community Services Food Bank was in danger of closing its doors to one of Seattle's poorest neighborhoods, Rainier Valley. Although recent media coverage of the food bank's financial hardship spurred a flood of donations that saved the institution, their struggle to survive illustrates a trend for food banks in the South End.

There is a large concentration of food banks on Capital Hill, one of the city's wealthier areas. But the South End, with its areas of economic depression, has a diverse group of neighborhoods with a lot of need and a lack of resources, according to Seattle food bank directors and administrators.

"Things took a dip after 9/11," said Trish Twomey, Fremont Public Association's director of food resources.

Four years ago, the Operational Emergency Center (OEC), which runs another food bank in the South End, had a budget surplus. Last year, United Way cut their food bank funding by 10 percent and now OEC faces a $60,000-a-year deficit.

"It's a hard sell to raise money when our population by nature doesn't have money," said Seth Rosenberg, executive director of OEC.

The Polynesian Food Bank, formerly in the South End, suffered an even worse fate than Northwest Community Services and closed about six months ago. The OEC picked up a lot of the overflow and now has a couple hundred more clients every week.

Rosenberg doesn't know how the OEC would have provided for the extra 600 families left hungry without the Northwest Community Services Food Bank.

"If the food bank closed, a whole lot of people, especially senior citizens, would have been left hanging with nothing to do," client Rosa Banks asserted.

In 1991, the year of Northwest Community Services' inception, Anther Teague, prompted by the growing hunger in her neighborhood, drove down Rainier Avenue until she saw a "for rent" sign, purchased a lease and opened her food bank. Today, at 75 years, Teague still steers the operation, which serves a significant number of African-Americans and refugees from Ukraine, Russia, and Vietnam.

The effort hasn't been easy.

"I had my blood pressure so high my doctor gave me three high blood pressure medicines to keep me from having a stroke," noted Teague.

The food bank has a full-time volunteer base of only six people for 600 families, and no paid staff. Seventy-three-year-old Walter Titts, who unloads heavy boxes of food from the delivery trucks, routinely feels the strain of being understaffed.

"I'm getting too old for this," Titts said. "We need manpower."

At its worst point, when shutting down seemed imminent, Northwest Community Services had only $1,600 to its name: enough to keep it open until March. Things looked bleak.

A Seattle Times article highlighted the food bank's plight, and the next day alone the food bank received $6,750 of donations, enough to get them out of the hole. Donors continued to flood the food bank with contributions, totaling $25,000. The demand for money has been satisfied, for now.

Aside from this outpouring, the current ebb in resources is not an anomaly, and Seattle's food banks have suffered tremendous cuts because of budgeting constraints. This year, United Way significantly reduced funding to OEC's Infant Mortality Prevention program, despite promises saying they wouldn't. They were also forced to drop a program called ACES-Arts, Culture and Employment Services-that helped get high school dropouts back in school or employed.

The Northwest Community Services Food Bank used to have a baby cupboard, but diapers and formula got too expensive.

Despite harsh conditions, however, Anther Teague seems optimistic about her food bank's future, and plans to improve fundraising and staffing to keep it strong. The food bank gave away more than 1,300 holiday toys last year, and this year Teague hopes to give away Easter baskets.

Seth Rosenberg revamped some of OEC's programs to make them most cost-efficient, but as more and more of these programs are put at risk by lack of resources, he voices frustration about the disparity between North and South Seattle.

"It's kind of ironic that the nicer food banks are in the wealthier area of town," Rosenberg said.

According to a 2004 United Way survey, 70,300 people in King County experience food insecurity. And the numbers show a noteworthy discrepancy between South and North-the wealthier communities have more resources for less hungry, while the impoverished communities continue to suffer.

"People are in need. Real need," said Willie, a senior citizen client of Northwest Community Services who declined to give his last name. "There are a lot of people out here that are hungry. I eat sometimes, and sometimes I don't."[[In-content Ad]]