Supply closure strains food bank reserves before Thanksgiving

Ronnie Beck and Denise Kelly stock produce Thursday morning. - Daniel Nash
Ronnie Beck and Denise Kelly stock produce Thursday morning.
— image credit: Daniel Nash

The Bonney Lake Food Bank could be forgiven if it weren't so thankful this season.

Bonney Lake Community Resources, which encompasses the Bonney Lake Food Bank on Veterans Memorial Drive East and Bread of Life Food Bank in South Prairie, is facing low food supplies and a number of other headaches. Ebbs and flows in donations and available food are typical but, if the present status quo holds, this is the first year they will be unable to supply Thanksgiving baskets to clients.

"We have zero turkeys and zero hams," Food Bank Director Stew Bowen said. "The community has been good to us in the past and we want to thank them for that.

"But we're really low. We're low on food in general. Donations haven't picked up at all this year."

The shelves of the primary bank were freshly stocked and full Thursday morning, but volunteer Denise Kelly said they would be picked over by closing time.

"We'll probably serve 50 families today," she said. "We serve about 35 to 50 families in need every day. (Some of them) have to wait for hours.

"With Albertson's gone, we feel that pinch. The best we can offer is a smile and a little hope for a day."

A retail grocer wasn't the only thing Bonney Lake lost when Albertson's shut its doors last month. The local chapter of the SuperValu subsidiary was also a significant donor of surplus inventory. As goes a business, so goes a donation stream.

While Bowen acknowledged the hit from losing a large contributor, he said the loss of donations wasn't as grievous as the indirect fallout.

"(Albertsons was) only this much of our total supply," he said, stretching his thumb and forefinger an inch apart. "The 'good' news is the other stores are having increased sales as they fill the gap left by them."

And the more the remaining stores sell, the fewer leftovers they have to donate.

"It's good for them, but it's bad for us," Bowen said.

Compounding matters is that the food bank must return to an appointment-only system after three years of allowing open-ended client visitation.

On Thursday morning, Bowen met the first wave of arrivals with the news that the food bank parking lot would be monopolized by highway construction crews for the foreseeable future, preempting unannounced visits.

The approach to clients has been frank: a sign at the front desk tells clients not to rely on anyone else for their Thanksgiving dinner, and suggests setting miscellaneous items aside in anticipation of the holiday.

"I think I have a different mindset than I used to have," Bowen said. "It's the difference between feeding people and ending hunger in our community. Why not try to end hunger in as many households as possible? Part of that is self-sufficiency; helping clients become self-sufficient. It's kind of a different mindset than just giving people food."

The philosophical shift occurred after Bowen attended a conference earlier in the year, he said. The speaker urged food bank managers to think beyond providing food to the broader mission of ending hunger.

"I asked myself what I was doing to end hunger, and the answer was nothing," Bowen said. "'You don't know what you don't know,' if you catch what I'm saying."

To that end, Bowen is looking into hiring a resource manager who can guide clients toward gaining a step up on their economic standing. Especially during the holidays, Bowen said he was optimistic that clients could be connected with employers that need seasonal employees.

All is not bleak for Thanksgiving. Bowen is planning to begin weekly food drives at the remaining local grocery stores, handing customers wish lists of food items as they enter and hoping they pick them up during their errand to donate them as they leave. It's a "win-win-win scenario," Bowen said, generating more sales for grocers, generating more donations for the food bank, and putting more food on the table for clients.

And even as Bowen spoke about the bank's troubles, he was interrupted by a phone call inquiring about volunteer and donation opportunities. Bowen told the woman on the other end to think about what she planned to have on her own table, and pick some of those items to donate.

"During the holiday season, people are thinking about what they can do to help," he said. "It's wonderful and we need that."

Bonney Lake Community Resources and the Bonney Lake Food Bank are located at 18409 Veterans Memorial Drive East. Its number is 253-863-4043.

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