1 million. That’s how many meals the Rainier Valley Food Bank (RVFB), Seattle’s busiest food bank serves annually. Cut to 2020, RVFB faced a lot more demand as the pandemic raged, and ravaged through the country. The organization and the community it serves, were deeply and devastatingly impacted. It had to do away with in-person shopping and shift their food distribution, home deliveries grew by five-fold, and to-go bags doubled in quantity. RVFB’s 1200 sq ft. home of 25 years, in the Rainier Valley, was hard-pressed for space to meet the increasing demands for food programs, staff, volunteers and donations. Increased demand called for more volunteers. 500 new volunteers increased their volunteer support by a staggering 166%.
They were compelled to pivot, and to make changes fast. And pivot they did, expansively and impressively. RVFB recently announced that it has acquired Bonney Watson’s Southwest Mortuary and will be raising capital to make renovations to the space to help further its mission and vision as a food bank and social justice organization. The new space will dramatically alter its ability to serve the community, especially communities deeply impacted by the pandemic.
“A new community space has been our dream that is finally becoming a reality. We are deeply grateful to those who have helped us secure a new site deep in the heart of the Rainier Valley,” said Gloria Hatcher-Mays, the Executive Director of Rainier Valley Food Bank.
It is a very symbolic move, as the building itself comes with a history and legacy of serving the community, one that Hatcher-Mays plans to both honor, and build on to. We spoke to Hatcher-Mays about this serendipitous symbolism, new community outreach programs, and most importantly, ways in which Seattleites could show their support…
Seattleite: What have been the biggest challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic?
Gloria Hatcher-Mays: The pandemic created two major challenges for us. First, demand for food skyrocketed because so many people lost their jobs during the pandemic. The influx of unemployment and general COVID-19 concerns caused our services to grow, and many had difficulty putting food on the table.
Our second challenge was a severe reduction in how many people could be inside our facilities. At 1,200 square feet, the mandate to reduce indoor capacity severely limited how many volunteers, staff, and guests we could have working inside. Keeping everyone safe remains our top priority. It also made it impossible for guests to shop for their own food. Prior to Covid, we used a grocery-store distribution model that allowed guests to choose their own groceries. Instead, we shifted our operations model to home delivery.
We continue to face these challenges as an organization. We spent time finding the safest ways to serve food, at a time when folks need it the most. We navigated the best grocery delivery routes for our drivers to efficiently drop off food to guests, expanded our warehouse space to allow more volunteers and staff to prepare food bags, and continue to serve our community as much as we can at this time.
Seattleite: What did you need to do to meet the increasing demand for resources, food, and support?
Gloria Hatcher-Mays: Like everyone else, Rainier Valley Food Bank had to pivot at the start of the pandemic. Our volunteers said, “Gloria, we’ll do whatever you want, but we are not shutting down.”
Since we did not want to increase exposure risk for our guests – many of whom take public transit to get to us – we made the decision to shut down our in-person shopping and shifted to alternative distribution methods, like home delivery. As a result, home deliveries grew from 200 to 1,000 a week, and To-Go Food Bags increased from 300 to about 600 per week. As the demand for food among students grew, teachers stepped up at a time when our Backpack Program was expanding at their schools. Each week, teachers and community volunteers personally pack and deliver bags of nutritious food to more than 1,600 at-risk students and their families attending 14 different South Seattle schools.
Seattleite: Did you see Seattleites rise up to meet these challenges and help others?
Gloria Hatcher-Mays: To meet this increased demand, the community stepped up and increased volunteer support by 166% which included over 500 new volunteers. One of these volunteers, an air traffic controller, saw how many home distributions were doing and set up logistics for us that helped us efficiently track and manage our home distribution system. Our community really stepped up when we needed them the most. From packing food bags, driving delivery routes to drop groceries off to clients, to folks with unique skills: people stepped up and helped out. For that, we are extremely grateful.
Seattleite: How do you feel about the new community space? In what ways do you expect the expanded space to help?
Gloria Hatcher-Mays: Although we are Seattle’s busiest food bank, Rainier Valley Food Bank does a lot more than just providing food. We view ourselves as a social justice organization and offer help with SNAP, housing, clothing, transportation, and healthcare. The new community space will help us realize our vision by offering us the space to execute our programs in a more dignified way for our customers.
For instance, right now if you want clothing, you must sort through donations in a bin. Our new space will allow for a store shopping experience where clothing will be hung up, organized, and displayed just like in a normal shopping environment. These small differences make the process of receiving clothing more dignified. We also want to build a garden where people can learn how to plant, grow, and harvest food and a commercial kitchen where they can learn how to cook it or incubate a food startup. Our warehouse will give volunteers and clients job training opportunities to expand their skill set. We look forward to furthering our support and programs in the Rainier Valley community.
Seattleite: Could you elaborate a little on the symbolism of the building?
Gloria Hatcher-Mays: As the former site of Southwest Mortuary, our new location has served the community in celebrations of life for the past few decades. Once renovations are completed, the new building will continue to be in service of the community, only now we will celebrate life through food. We are conducting focus groups and speaking with community leaders to learn how we can best serve our community and honor the former site.
Seattleite: How can we support the most vulnerable sections of our community when it comes to food security?
Gloria Hatcher-Mays: There are three suggested ways Seattleites can get involved. First, you can donate or raise money to support your local food bank. Monetary donations give us the flexibility to buy what our guests need, allowing for a more diverse selection of in-demand foods and creating less food waste. When you donate money, we can stretch your dollar more than you would at a grocery store, thanks to our partners. Second, you can donate your time (or your company’s time) by signing up to volunteer. Lastly, you can encourage others to donate and volunteer by helping to spread the word in person or on our social media.
Seattleite: What tangible ways can Seattleites show their support?
Gloria Hatcher-Mays: The greater Seattle region is invited to show their support by volunteering, donating, and connecting with RVFB online. You can spread the word about our operations through our social media, you can find us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Get involved with your RVFB by hosting a food drive or volunteering, resources on how to get involved can be found on our website at RVFB.org. Lastly, please consider donating to our capital campaign as we are still raising funds for our proposed renovations. Thank you for your support!