Feeding the Need
Story by Rogelie D. Rael // Photos by Mary Truman
Disabled and unable to work Wisler, raised her son with no father. She tried to stretch dollars and groceries, but at the end of month she was always short. She often ate broth or skipped meals in order to save food for Alex.
One day, Wisler's neighbor, who went weekly to the food bank, suggested that she go there too. Wisler says she did not know the program existed and was surprised by the congeniality and genuine concern of the staff and volunteers.
"They never judged me or questioned how I ended up there," says the now 40-year-old Wisler.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food prices have increased 5 to 6 percent this year and are expected to increase another 4 to 5 percent in 2009. With increasing food prices and higher costs of living, Wisler was among the thousands of low-income families who do not have food security and resort to seeking help from local food banks. This year, the Bellingham Food Bank's 130 volunteers and four paid staff members have distributed more than 180,000 pounds of food per month to more than 7,500 monthly visitors, says Mike Cohen, executive director of the Bellingham Food Bank.
After recovering from lupus in 2006, Wisler wanted to show her gratitude to the organization that helped her get back on her feet so, she started volunteering.
"What better way to get back into the world than giving back to the ones that helped you?" Wisler says. "I think there is an inherent need to give back and pay forward—to do something for someone else."
On a typical distribution day at the Bellingham Food Bank, 17 volunteers are in the backroom sorting the donated food and supplies into the different food pyramid categories and everyday essentials such as toilet paper and diapers.
Wearing a white apron tied over her black long-sleeved thermal, Wisler brushes her golden blonde hair out of her face and continues to quickly scrutinize each fruit and vegetable before placing them in their respective boxes. Her 5-foot-11-inch frame moves quickly, but with grace.
A sense of camaraderie and support is apparent as the volunteers prepare for another day of distribution. Wisler describes the group as a big, extended family who supports each other in crucial times and celebrates individual achievements.
"It's a place to belong," Wisler says.
The original Bellingham Food Bank, built in 1929, is an "Alternative to Hunger" project that services hungry, low-income families and is part of the Whatcom Anti-Hunger Coalition.
Although the food bank does not check the income of families, a survey was conducted last year that found the average income of food bank clients to be less than $1,000 per month, Cohen says.
Wisler says nearly 60 percent of food bank users skip or cut meals at least once a week to ration food supply because they have to pay for more important expenses such as rent, utilities and medical care. Eighty percent of clients often work more than one job just to survive, but still can't make ends meet. The other 20 percent are non-working, which includes people on social security or welfare, or people who have a disability, she says.
The majority of the supplies the food bank distributes to its clients come from major grocery stores in Bellingham such as Haggen, Fred Meyer, Trader Joe's, Cost Cutter and the Community Food Co-op. The food bank also receives fresh produce from the Friendship Community Garden, a 10,000-square-foot garden located in Ferndale, and the Food Bank Garden, located off Guide Meridian.
As a volunteer, Wisler sees the food and supplies received by the food bank on a first-hand basis. She says the amount of supplies varies from day to day.
"Sometimes we get a lot, and we get so excited!" She says. "Other times, we don't get enough, and we need to ration it out to make sure that everyone gets what they need."
There have been arguments over food, but no big fights, Wisler says. Once in a blue moon, an inebriated person comes in and smells strongly of alcohol and that person is asked to leave because the safety of clients is a priority, she says.
"I have been hit on, too," Wisler says. "I'm like 'Thank you for the compliment, but we need to keep the line moving. See you next week.' You shouldn't use the food bank as a dating network."
After volunteering at the food bank for the last two years, Wisler says she was able to see and experience its expansion and growth.
Earlier this year, the old food bank's 5,000-square-foot building was torn down, rebuilt and expanded to 9,500-square-feet because the old food bank building did not accommodate the increasing number of clients and had limited space for food storage, Cohen says.
The new building is LEED-certified (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design), meaning it integrates energy and water-efficient designs and resource-efficient construction methods to promote standards of sustainability. The building materials are made from certain types of wood, steel and paint, Cohen says. The lights in the main space are solar powered and turn off automatically if there is no motion, and the refrigeration system uses less energy, he says.
"The old food bank was falling down around us, literally," Wisler says. "We really needed a new building."
At 3 p.m. the food bank is supposed to close, but a line of people still snakes out the door. After helping the last of the clients, Wisler stacks canned beans and peaches against a wall, other volunteers sort perishable food in the refrigerator and freezer rooms located in the back, a combination of water and bleach is sprayed to sanitize the six steel tables in the main area, rugs are shaken and the red floor is mopped and swept—
by 5 p.m. the volunteers are ready to leave and the food bank closes for another day.