By Cesar Canizales
Special to The Medium
Debbie Christian, executive director of the Auburn Food Bank in south King County, says there is one word she’s hearing from customers in the current high-inflation environment: “panic.”
Christian says that she has seen a 20% increase in families going to the food bank, which has increased service to three times a month, up from two.
“The panic, the high anxiety is what we hear and what we see; they are very afraid,” Christian said. “People are getting in line earlier and earlier. People show up at 7 a.m.”
The steep rise in inflation is straining households’ ability to keep families fed and forcing area food banks to keep up with increased demand as prices of food surge without an end in sight. Low-income families and racial minorities are particularly vulnerable to the highest inflation rate in 40 years because they spend a larger portion of their income on necessities like food.
The end of the Biden administration’s Child Tax Credit that was part of the American Rescue Plan helped families cope with the pandemic’s economic downturn, but the measure expired at the end of 2021. The tax credit helped reduce food insufficiency by about 26%, according to the JAMA Network, a medical journal from the American Medical Association.
Frugality in a time of need
Paulina Retana, who lives in Burien with her family, said she relies on the White Center Food Bank to help her make ends meet.
She says inflation has already impacted how she shops. She has reduced meat purchases, like beef and chicken, because they have become too expensive. And she goes to the food bank about three times per month to supplement her family’s food needs.
“I get things that don’t go bad, like beans and rice,” she said. “We don’t use many cans because we are from a culture where almost everything is cooked from scratch—eggs, cheese, vegetables, meats, all the basic foods.”
Retana said she and her husband, who are both originally from Mexico, have learned to manage in stressful situations like the current one, and they have always been frugal with their money.
“It’s very difficult for families with low income like ours,” says Retana. “But we come from a country where we’ve had to learn to survive no matter what happens.”
A steady rise in need
In King County, over 12% of the households received Basic Food (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits in May. The county’s COVID-19 dashboard shows a 6% increase in the number of households receiving Basic Food benefits since the beginning of the year. The number decreased slowly but steadily throughout 2021.
The highest concentration of families receiving assistance are in the county’s southern region. With more than 36% of households receiving Basic Food, ZIP code 98002, which includes part of Auburn, tops the list. ZIP codes covering Federal Way (28.7%), Kent (30.1%), White Center/Tukwila (27.5%), and other areas south of Seattle, which have large minority and low-income populations, also have a large percentage of people receiving aid.
Kate Cole, spokesperson for Public Health – Seattle & King County, said in a statement that her department hasn’t done formal research about food needs in the county. She said the agency holds monthly meetings with food access partners who report on the situation.
Cole said the cost and shortage of some foods and the lack of staffing are “creating a strain on budgets and contributing to staff burnout.”
“The rising rate inflation is having a devastating effect on our community,” said Jennifer Muzia, executive director of the Ballard Food Bank.
Muzia said before the pandemic, the Ballard Food Bank spent $300,000 on food each year. This year, they will spend $800,000.
Sara Seelmeyer, senior manager of food security and benefits access at United Way of King County, which partners with food banks and other community-based organizations, says the organization is seeing a 20% to 30% uptick in demand for food assistance.
Seelmeyer said food is usually the most flexible part of a family’s budget, and that is especially true for lower-income families.
“With rising inflation and rising costs, families can’t necessarily choose not to fill up their gas tanks or not to pay increased utility bills, but they are having to cut back their spending on food just to make their overall budget stretch further,” Seelmeyer said.
Rainier Valley Food Bank, like other food banks in the area, has experienced a surge in need for food and other services due to high inflation.
Gloria Hatcher-Mays, executive director of the Rainier Valley Food Bank, said that when the pandemic started, the food bank went into a delivery-only mode to get food to people.
The food bank did a soft re-opening for people to shop inside the store in May and invited 20 people. More than 180 showed up. Since then, the number of customers has climbed steadily from 120 – 150 to 200.
“There is a direct relationship between that statistic and what’s happening with the economy relative to both inflation the cost of food and the pressures that people are feeling trying to restart their lives post-pandemic,” Hatcher-Mays said.
Jefferson Rose, development and communications director at the White Center Food Bank, said he expects “the level of need to rise, at least in the short term.”
Sarah Huttula, manager of the Ballard Food Bank, said the food bank has to buy more food like produce, meat, milk and eggs to ensure that there’s enough food for everyone throughout the week.
Huttula said it can be draining to see so many people in distress, but working at the food bank is “a tangible thing” they can help with.
“Being able to give someone food and make their stress a little bit less is huge,” said Huttula.
Impact on minorities
According to King County’s data, which is based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey of the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue metropolitan statistical area, 6.6% of all adults reported not having enough food the week ending on May 9. The rate for Blacks and Latinos was 12.5% and 11.9%, respectively. For white people, it was 5.1%.
United Way’s Seelmeyer said about 85% to 90% of families who receive food through the organization’s home delivery program are Black, Indigenous and other minorities.
Seelmeyer added that food insecurity has always been highest in areas south of Seattle, but she stressed that it is a county-wide issue, so “folks across the county are being squeezed.”
Christian, from the Auburn Food Bank, said white people make up between 39% and 47% of the population the food bank serves. The rest are Latino, Black and other people of color. She added that Pacific Islanders used to make up a large proportion of customers, but many have moved as housing became too expensive.
Rose, from the White Center Food Bank, said the food bank has not collected demographic data for a couple of years, but most of the customers it serves are Southeast Asian and Latino.
Hatcher-Mays said the majority of clients the Rainier Valley Food Bank serves are older and predominantly Asian and Pacific Islander, but they have seen an increase in Black and refugee populations.
“We full have a full spectrum of ethnic and cultural diversity that we serve out of the food bank,” she said.
Anxiety over the future
Christian said that while the food the Auburn Food Bank is getting has held steady this year, she’s worried about the coming months.
“We’re tightening our belts and storing as much food as we can,” Christian said.
Christian added that she usually buys turkeys, hams and chickens for her food bank’s customers for Thanksgiving. She said last year she spent $2,000 more than she spent the year before. She’s not sure what’s going to happen this year.
“With prices doubling, I’m wondering what we’re going to do,” Christian said.
Retana, the White Center Food Bank customer, said her faith gives her hope.
“I have faith that God will provide. When you first get to this country, it’s not exactly the way that people say. There’s fear and uncertainty, but eventually your life stabilizes,” she said. “But you keep the faith. Then you realize you can do it, you can survive, even if it’s difficult. But most important, you have hope.”