News

Holes patched in food safety net

By ERICA HALL

The Mirror

Sunlight streams through the tall windows of the Emergency Feeding Program’s airy, utilitarian headquarters in Seattle’s Central District, illuminating the swept concrete floors and the bulging, brown paper bags lined up on metal shelves.

The warehouse is a new home for the decades-old program. Two staff members and countless volunteers moved into the space in January, after the program reorganized. It’s been tough starting over, but development director Sam Osborne said it’s been nice having the administrative offices and the warehouse in the same place.

“The transition hasn’t been easy,” Osborne said. “There was a lot of blood and sweat to get up to speed.”

The Emergency Feeding Program was created 30 years ago — a collaboration between the Church Council of Greater Seattle and the Black United Clergy for Action — to provide emergency food to people who couldn’t make it until the food bank opened again, who didn’t have transportation to get there, or who faced a wait of several days for their food benefits to be processed through the state Department of Social and Health Services.

The program operated well those 30 years and had a large distribution in south King County. But in 2004, the Church Council informed cities they would no longer be able to oversee it and withdrew their requests for funding.

Rather than let the program die, staff members reorganized and set about continuing to provide the service while also outfitting their new headquarters with the accoutrements of a smooth-running agency.

It was tough going. When the Church Council dropped the emergency feeding program, it lost the monetary support of several cities, which wanted to see whether a newly organized program would float before allocating valuable tax revenue to it, Osborne said.

Still, some cities stayed, put out a hand and helped the organization get on its feet again. Federal Way was one of those cities.

“I have to give huge praise to Federal Way,” Osborne said. City human services directo Angelina Allen-Mpyisi and community development block grant coordinator Kelly O’Donnell “were extra helpful. They sat down with us for hours at a time and said, ‘Here’s what we want to see. We want you to be successful.’ They were little short of saintly.”

Getting up to speed

Trim and energetic, with wire-rimmed glasses and heavy rings on his fingers, Osborne points proudly to the little things he and executive director Arthur Lee have accomplished and acquired to make the non-profit feeding program go. They are things like letterhead, easy-to-use forms the distribution sites fax to the warehouse to order bags of food, a computer, a combination printer/fax machine, a filing system, the menus given to volunteers who stuff the bags.

“We pretty much started over from scratch in January,” Osborne said. “We had no delivery vans and what little furniture the former tenants left.”

During the first few months of this year, Osborne and Lee were creating the infrastructure for a new organization and applying for grants to keep it all going, while simultaneously providing the service they were created to provide.

As volunteers dropped in daily to stuff bags and drive the recently acquired delivery van to distribution points from north Seattle to the Eastside to south King County, Lee and Arthur were creating inventory systems, operating manuals and tracking systems between answering the phones and taking food orders.

Allen-Mpyisi and O’Donnell were instrumental in guiding the program, Osborne said. Rather than simply approving or denying the agency’s funding request, they sent a detailed letter outlining the program’s deficiencies, then sat down with Osborne and Lee and explained what Federal Way wanted before it could allocate funding.

They explained that the program had to have a computerized financial management system to ensure accurate financial recordkeeping, reporting and fiscal oversight.

They wanted a written manual outlining the program’s accounting and financial management policies and procedures, including a fraud protection policy.

They wanted a computerized tracking system so the Emergency Feeding Program could report the number of unduplicated clients being served, as well as demographic information.

They required the program to conduct a strategic planning session and submit a copy of their plan to the city. And they wanted program administrators to create governance manuals and get approval on them from the program’s board of directors..

But not only did Allen-Mpyisi and O’Donnell list the requirements, they provided help to achieve them. In exchange, the city’s Human Services Department asked the program to add one more distribution site in Federal Way to serve another 1,015 clients.

Lee and Osborne put together all the manuals, programs and financial and client-tracking systems. Then they sent in a revised application for $7,800 in general funding and $10,000 in federal Community Development Block Grant funds.

The Federal Way City Council this year agreed to give the program the $7,800, but not the $10,000 in block grant funds. The Emergency Feeding Program didn’t have the necessary recording and tracking elements in place in time, and because block grant funds are federal, there are more strings attached to the revenue. Now that those elements are in place, the program can apply for a block grant next year.

The City Council allocated the $10,000 in federal funds to Multi-Service Center of South King County, a social services agency headquartered in Federal Way, to purchase formula for infants and special food for people on low-sodium and diabetic diets.

Other cities helped, too. Seattle provided the money for the shelves that are now stacked with cases of Ensure and Gatorade for terminally ill or toothless people who can’t eat solid food, baby formula and cases of toddler starter foods, and wholesale dry goods, canned foods and juice packs.

Other shelves are stacked with large paper bags stuffed with culturally appropriate food for Asian and Latino families, no-cook food for homeless people (Osborne explained how to open a can on the sidewalk without a can opener), food for diabetic and hypoglycemic people, low-sodium, vegan or lactose-intolerant eaters, and standard American fare.

More shelves hold lunch bag-sized “teen packs” — they were designed by street kids and, surprisingly to staff and nutritionists, turned out to be a fairly balanced, healthy group of foods — that are popular with adults because they’re a good source of energy and they travel well in a backpack.

In addition to $35,554 from Seattle and $7,800 from Federal Way, Renton allocated $12,310, the Federal Emergency Management Administration allocated $36,000, and the state’s Emergency Feeding Assistance Program has approved continued funding.

The money donated by cities, government agencies and human services organizations is holding up a program used by thousands of hungry people. Osborne estimated the program provides food to between 60,000 and 70,000 King County residents a year.

“Already this year, by the end of March, we put out enough food to feed 7,000 people,” he said.

In the his inbox, a stack of yellow duplicate order forms showed where hundreds more bags were heading.

Volunteers are key

There are many social service agencies in King County, with several offering food banks or feeding assistance programs. But the Emergency Feeding Program is unique, Osborne said, because of the variety of food it offers and the emergent, immediate need it addresses.

With only two staff members, local people donating their time and energy are the pistons that keeps the program moving. “We couldn’t do it without volunteers,” Osborne said.

Teams of volunteers drop into the warehouse to help pack emergency bags of food for delivery to the dozens of distribution centers around the county. The volunteers — anywhere from three to 15 people standing at sturdy cafeteria tables — pack hundreds of bags a week for a multiplicity of dietary needs and family sizes.

Many of the volunteers are members of a church or personnel at an office that participates in community service. Some volunteers were recipients of the Emergency Feeding Program’s assistance in the past and came back to help when they got back on their feet.

The program’s main distribution center in Federal Way is the DSHS office, which gets a vanload of food to offer people who drop in for referrals for other services. The office saw more than 2,600 people between February 2004 and this January who were denied food stamps and were unable to buy food.

Calvary Lutheran Church in Federal Way also is a distribution site for the program. The church office coordinator, Liz Caley, said that before the reorganization, Calvary gave out a lot of Emergency Feeding Program bags. “It was really busy,” she said. Since the reorganization, Calvary hasn’t ordered any more bags of food but still has several available from their last order.

The distribution centers aren’t designed to be used as food banks. The program is intended to help people in an emergency, to hold them over until they can find another source of food. Anybody who is given a bag of food at a distribution location also is getting referrals to other services, Osborne said.

Still, the Emergency Feeding Program doesn’t make rules for its distributors, which allows different locations to serve their clients in whatever way their clients need — even if that means the homeless and hungry treat it more like a food bank.

“Word travels on the street faster than the Internet,” Osborne said. “Some places have the snack packs and word just travels.”

Caley said Calvary Lutheran, which has several programs for hungry people in Federal Way –– including sack lunches to hand out daily and a Thursday night community supper, provided by the Federal Way Community Caregiving Network –– won’t let families and individuals leave with their stomachs growling.

“People had to have a referral card from a public agency, although we never let people go hungry. If they came in on an emergency basis and were hungry, we had cards to fill out,” Caley said. “The original plan was to feed the hungry.”

Staff writer Erica Hall: 925-5565, ehall@fedwaymirror.com

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