As the unemployment rate stagnates, the number of hungry people in Washington State continues to rise.
Between July 1, 2011 and June 30, 2012, Jewish Family Service’s Polack Food Bank served, on average, 1,875 individuals per month. While that number increased by 1.2 percent from 2010–2011, considering the drastic 20 percent increase from 2009–2010, things clearly have not improved for everyone. And the numbers are still increasing. Last December, the social service organization served an all-time high of 1,385 households — a 54.6 percent increase from the previous December.
“It’s the recession,” said Richard Rosenwald, director of marketing and communications for JFS.
While the national unemployment rate fell from 8.3 percent to 8.1 percent in July, the drop is not due to job gains, but largely to workforce dropout.
What is most striking about the food bank’s clientele, according to the latest report put out by JFS food bank manager Jana Prothman, is its level of education: 29 percent have a high school diploma, 22 percent have some college, and 17 percent hold a bachelor’s degree.
According to a story broadcast by KPLU public radio last week, 15.4 percent of households have been “food insecure” over the past three years, with families burning through unemployment, savings and retirement funds. The average client uses three food banks a month.
“We can’t meet all their needs,” said Rosenwald.
With these overwhelming figures on its hands, JFS leadership is trying to make the food bank, which was remodeled and expanded in 2009, more efficient.
With clientele choosing what they know they’ll eat, Mullin hopes this reduces the amount of canned food she used to see rolling down the sidewalk.
“That is a model that a lot of food banks are moving toward,” she said.
JFS has a goal of making fresh produce 40 percent of its offerings. The agency spends around $10,000 a month buying food, mainly produce and poultry.
“It’s not Pike Place Market, but it’s a mini version of it,” Mullin said.
JFS staff encourages not just food handouts, but also food education.
“We have a series of cooking classes, using items from the food bank for more nutritious ways of eating,” Rosenwald said. The classes, a partnership with Cooking Matters of Solid Ground, teach participants about nutrition, cooking, label reading and other practical, empowering skills.
“Healthy eating is an important goal for us,” Mullin said. “We want to help people learn good ways to eat.”
JFS is gearing up for its annual food drive, which will take place from September 17 to October 9. The drive is projected to bring in 50-60,000 pounds of food from the collection bins and 4,000 paper grocery bags distributed throughout the community to individuals and Jewish communal and religious institutions. At the annual food sort on September 30, 250 to 300 volunteers are expected to turn out to box, tag, and store the donated items.
“We don’t want people to donate a can of food,” Mullin said. “We want people to donate a bag of food.”
Mullin and Rosenwald also want to see community members make a year-round commitment to the food bank. Every time you go to the store, “get a few extra,” she said, “and drop it by here at JFS.”
“A boy for his Bar Mitzvah, instead of gifts, is encouraging people to donate to the food bank,” added Rosenwald. Some little girls even donated the proceeds of their lemonade stand.
“Everyone can fill a bag of food,” said Mullin.