It’s a little after 11 a.m. on Wednesday morning, and the Lakewood FISH Food Bank won’t open for another two hours.
But the line has been growing since 9 a.m. Sitting patiently in the hallway of Lakewood Methodist Church are elderly women hunched over books, children glued to worn hand-held video games, and their mothers, armed with snacks and weary smiles as the minutes tick by.
Across the region, this is the norm – long lines and short supply.
And yet, the show must go on.
Hunger is a 24/7 problem, and Pierce County tallies more than 147,000 food-bank visits a month.
“I don’t think that people look at fighting hunger as a business,” said , executive director of the Emergency Food Network (EFN). “But it’s the business we’re in.”
In 2011, that business has struggled on all fronts. Over the summer, the federal government stopped providing juice. It has since been reinstated, but now , “and there is no indication that they’ll ever give it to us again.”
“That’s the most painful one,” McGovern said. “It’s such a great source of protein.”
EFN Development Director Jeff Klein said that donations are down from regional distributors from which they usually get large truckloads. Inside the organization’s Lakewood warehouse, some shelves are nearly empty, and forklifts are hauling fewer boxes than six months ago.
“They’re cutting costs by giving leftovers to grocery outlets – selling instead of donating,” Klein said. “We’re not trucking in as much food, and it’s hard.”
Additionally, corporate and individual giving is down and gas prices are high – making it hard to pick up produce donations in Eastern Washington, California and Arizona – which means two things: EFN has less food to give out, and what it has, it may have had to pay for.
EFN can turn every dollar donated into $12 worth of food, but there are only so many dollars coming in.
“We’re getting a little worried at this point,” said Beth Elliott, executive director of eight FISH Food Banks across Pierce County, including Lakewood, Key Peninsula and Northwest Tacoma. “Government commodities have gone down, and financial donations have been steady, but not keeping up with the pace.”
Barbara Severson, director of the University Place Food Bank, summed up her concerns in six words: “Low on supply; high on demand.”
Because EFN supplies the food banks with so much food, when supply declines, it causes a chain reaction of worry.
“EFN and Northwest Harvest have taken care of a lot of our basic staples,” Severson said, “so I can concentrate (the budget) on milk and eggs, and provide more substantial protein items.”
Elliott said that EFN gives FISH about 55 percent of its donated food, “So when they’re down, that means all of the food banks are down, and we’re the ones on the main line giving out the food.”
Stu Bowen, executive director of the Bread of Life Food Bank in Bonney Lake, felt similarly.
“Desperate isn’t the right word, but we’re concerned about the lack of food in the bank,” he said, calling EFN its main supplier. “We have a lot of fresh food – thanks to the generosity of local stores – but when it comes in, it has to be taken out and used quickly. The shelf life is pretty minimal.”
In serving about 50 families a day, the shelves at Bread of Life are often empty by the end of the day, and canned goods go the quickest. Chili, soup and canned fruit and vegetables are especially popular.
But the challenge doesn’t get Bowen down. Not for long, anyway.
“It’s more prayer than wing,” he said with a rueful laugh. “It does try our faith sometimes when we’re low, but it seems that while we’re not able to give as much as we would like, we are always able to give something.”
“We purchase quite a significant amount of food, but we can’t keep doing that forever, so we’re looking at how we can be more strategic.”
That includes relying on local grocery stores, including Walmart, Trader Joe’s, , Winco and the Orowheat outlet, to make large donations every week. And it’s not just about the actual food – each food bank has needs ranging from grocery bags to egg cartons – the lists go on and on.
“Every day, we empty the shelves, and the next day, we have to figure out how to do it again,” said Marcus Stoll, director of Lakewood FISH. “God willing, we’ve been able to do it so far, but we don’t know how long we can keep it up.”
Severson said that with the holidays approaching, her organization is concerned about keeping up with demand for the holiday food baskets it provides to five different agencies.
“We’re going to be spending more money to feed these families,” she predicted.
McGovern said she expects the customary uptick in donations in November and December, but wishes that people would be as generous between January and October.
“For some people, (making donations) is a tradition,” she said. “They want to recreate a little of the comfort they feel for other people, which we really appreciate, but it would be wonderful that instead of going out and buying $300 worth of groceries at once, if they would consider pledging $50 a month all year long.”
At the Key Peninsula FISH at Key Peninsula Lutheran Church, visits have increased 100 percent over last year, to more than 4,500 people a month. Elliott attributed the growth to the rural area “being hit a little bit harder,” and bus service being cut, which keeps people from going into Gig Harbor or Port Orchard.
“Now people know there’s a food bank out there,” she said.
When Stoll took over three years ago, Lakewood FISH fed about 30 to 60 families a day. Now, it’s closer to 150. On any given week, 60 percent of clients are first-timers, as opposed to 40 percent a year ago – and the majority is families.
“An adult, you make it work,” he said of going hungry. “But you don’t want your kids to suffer. It’s a pretty humbling experience. People come in with their heads hanging pretty low the first time.”
McGovern acknowledged that “everyone is scared to death about the future,” but said EFN and other organizations such as Northwest Harvest are sitting down together to construct a five-year plan.
Inside Lakewood FISH on Wednesday, volunteers stacked apples – red and green in staggered rows – and straightened canned goods while a team left to pick up a dairy donation from Walmart. The shelves of baby and pet food were nearly empty, but the bread area was stuffed with everything from bagels to cinnamon rolls.
Similar to other area food banks, visitors to FISH have the opportunity to choose their own food. Guides taped to the walls give the guidelines: half a dozen eggs; two cans of vegetables; one loaf of bread. How much a visitor can take home depends on the size of their household.
That is something Bowen sees increasing as visits to Bread of Life have gone up 60 percent in the last year.
“There used to be a single family in a home, and now we’re seeing friends and family members moving in together, trying to maintain a residence,” he said. “There’s more mouths to feed, and to be realistic, there’s more stress. It’s tight. Economics are tight.
“It creates a sense of community in one respect, but it also creates anxiety.”
Back at Lakewood FISH, a woman and her 5-year-old son sat patiently with their boxes, waiting to stock up on ingredients so she can cook nutritious meals for their family. She makes the trek from their home on Joint Base Lewis-McChord every Wednesday.
“My husband is in the military,” she explained quietly. “A lot of (service members) don’t get paid as well as people think.”
But going to the food bank is far better than the alternative, she added.
“This helps me feed my family and make ends meet,” she said. “I can give my family good quality meals. Produce is so expensive, and otherwise, I don’t know what I would cook – those boxed meals?”
She nodded toward the door, where a family toting an infant carrier was getting in line.
“It is really worth the wait.”
A list of food banks in Pierce County is available here.
Local poverty by the numbers
Washington state: Median household income 2005-2009, $56,384
Washington state: People of all ages in poverty, 2005-2009: 11.8 percent
Median household income 2005-2009, $58,041
People of all ages in poverty - percent, 2005-2009, 10.1 percent
Median household income 2005-2009, $52,936
People of all ages in poverty - percent, 2005-2009, 9.2 percent
Median household income 2005-2009, $42,446
People of all ages in poverty - percent, 2005-2009, 17.6 percent
Median household income 2005-2009, $76,205
People of all ages in poverty - percent, 2005-2009, 4.6 percent
Median household income 2005-2009, $52,160
People of all ages in poverty - percent, 2005-2009, 8.6 percent
You can find more articles from this ongoing series, “Dispatches: The Changing Amerian Dream,” from across the country at The Huffington Post.