During a normal year the Hunger Coalition in Bellevue serves around 4,000 people in need.
Now, since the start of COVID-19, Kristin McMahon, the communications and development supervisor at the Hunger Coalition, says those numbers greatly increased.
“By the end of the month of April, which is kind of our peak numbers, we’d seen more people at our curbside food pantry than we had all of last year,” she said. “… Once the shelter in place orders started to lift and people started going back to work the numbers tapered off a bit. But, months later, (we’re) still seeing two to three times as many people as we had before the pandemic.”
McMahon says the vast majority of people coming in for help are part of the workforce, specifically service workers.
Data shows illustrates story
Data USA reported in 2017 11,954 people were working in Blaine County. The same data showed 9.2% of those people worked in food preparation and serving related jobs. These people were part of the lowest paying industry averaging $21,165 in wages a year.
McMahon has heard all kinds of stories in the past few months. From stories of people who haven’t relied on the Hunger Coalition for years needing help again to the family’s breadwinner being laid off.
“I just heard that 40% of the increase we’re seeing are new people,” she said. “We’ve also had people say that they haven’t been to us in 10 years. I think it’s kind of hard for folks to come back, but everyone’s in this together right now. Everyone’s been really friendly and grateful. So I think once folks do come back they’re having a positive experience, but just making that drive can be tough.”
McMahon pointed out all the kindness and support locals have been giving the Hunger Coalition throughout this trying time. Dozens of businesses and hundreds of individuals have donated to its cause.
The Hunger Coalition broke ground and started the renovation of a 13,000 square foot building across the street. The building is called Bloom Community Food Center. Crews should complete work on the building next year.
“Considering how vulnerable our workforce is, how local people are really having a hard time with the cost of living,” McMahon said. “And wages, kind of stagnated over the years, as the cost of living has risen. So that just really reinforced the fact that we need to do more to support so many local people in our community.”
The idea is to have a “fresh new solution to hunger.” The Hunger Coalition will have heated greenhouses on-site in order to feed this vulnerable population fresh, healthy and food year-round.
“Not only is food a matter of scarcity but also if you’re food insecure maybe you can afford hot dogs, you can’t afford food that’s going to, nourish your children and help you thrive,” McMahon said. “… So not only are we ensuring we’re providing food for people in need, but also healthy food and the food that is that much harder to access.”
The Bloom Community Food Center will also feature a community kitchen where people can learn to cook, meet their neighbors and make connections.
ALICE in Blaine County
McMahon talked about the United Way’s 2018 Asset Limited, Income constrained, employed (ALICE) numbers, to express how important a project like this is for Blaine. The data shows that 52% of households in Blaine County lived below the Alice threshold. ALICE households are working families who can’t afford basic household essentials like health care and food.
“It just kind of gives you an idea of just the deep or very stark divide economically in our community,” she said. “… Certainly no one’s alone in needing help around here.”