A volunteer asked a woman picking up her groceries from Federal Way’s food bank on Wednesday morning: “Is this going to be enough milk? Would you like one more?”
The Multi-Service Center Food Bank in Federal Way has served more than 500 new families amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Protocols and processes of the food bank look “110% different than in March,” said Dan Lancaster, director of the food bank. Lancaster joined the MSC team in January after previously serving as director of Maple Valley’s food bank for three years.
The food bank, supported primarily by volunteers, is open four days a week for visitors to pick up essential food items such as produce, pantry staples and more. For the time being, the clothing bank is closed.
“We’re trying to take every precaution we can,” Lancaster said.
Inside the food bank, volunteers “shop” for visitors, filling grocery bags with staple items such as soups, beans, chilis and more.
Visitors wait 6 feet apart outside of the food bank, and once at the front of the line, they receive a prepared box of produce, dairy, meats and nonperishables as well as fruit bags made from Northwest Harvest and a sweet treat, among other items.
The food bank is a beneficiary of a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) grant supplying dozens of boxes of dairy and produce items to Federal Way households.
By next week, the food bank will receive near-daily deliveries of the boxes, which will save the food bank several hundred dollars while the program runs, Lancaster said.
Pacific Coast Fruit Company received $24.8 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to distribute food to people in need in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and California through June.
The food boxes include a produce box (apples, oranges, strawberries, potatoes, onions, broccoli, cauliflower, celery, romaine lettuce and carrots), dairy box (eggs, 2% milk, non-fat milk, half and half, butter, yogurt, cheddar and jack cheese) or a combo box (packaged deli ham and chicken, butter, 2% milk, cheddar and jack cheese, romaine lettuce, potatoes and onions).
In total, the company will prepare 810,000 boxes between May 18 and June 30, reaching 135,000 people every week, including food insecure families who need it most, according to their website.
“We try really hard to make sure they have important, high-quality food,” Lancaster said.
Screens have been placed at two spots where interaction takes place — which Lancaster jokes the food bank had even before the grocery stores followed suit.
Visitors still get to choose some items and make preferences, but at the same time, the food bank is meeting all safety protocols, Lancaster said.
A few months ago, a trip to the food bank could last anywhere from an hour to three hours depending on the day’s visitor volume. Now with the new process, Lancaster said people often receive their items in under 10 minutes.
While the ability to freely shop grocery store-style at the food bank has been suspended, the new process is safer, faster and more efficient, Lancaster said. Many people also asked if this process could continue after social distancing restrictions are lifted.
A colorful calendar posted outside of Lancaster’s office notes the number of families served on any given day, with each Friday in May showing a pattern of higher visitor numbers.
From March through April, the number of brand new households/families visiting the food bank went up 176%, Lancaster said. March saw an increase of 152 new families visiting the food bank, while in April, 419 new families visited.
Overall, the food bank has seen an overall increase of 21.6% of new households throughout the time of the pandemic.
“We knew there was going to be an increase. We just didn’t know how much,” Lancaster said. Most food banks in the area have seen similar increases — heavier volumes, but not staggering spikes. The variance can be attributed to unemployment funds coming through, changes in benefits and the arrival of stimulus checks.
Lancaster predicts the food bank will be most challenged in the next two to nine months as unemployment numbers could continue to rise, leaving more individuals with a looming uncertainty and a need for resources.
There have been minor obstacles, such as the ongoing search for storage space for dry goods and perishable products, and the increasing difficulty of purchasing food items in bulk due to unavailability.
“It’s not bad right now — tricky, but not bad,” he said. “We’re planning for the future.”
Lancaster said the outpouring of support from the community has been overwhelming. Various community organizations, nonprofits, individuals and city officials have stepped up to help the food bank during this time, he said.
“There are a lot of unknowns, yet that doesn’t stop people from helping other people,” Lancaster said. “We’re here because the community lets us be here.”
The Multi-Service Center Food Bank, 1200 S. 336th St., is open Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., and on Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. for those ages 55 and older. For more information, visit mschelps.org.