It’s Tuesday morning, and at 8:45 a.m. the line at the Blaine Food Bank already stretches from the front door to the parking lot, two dozen strong. The doors won’t open until 9 a.m., but some patrons have been there since 7 a.m. They’ve elected to arrive early and grab a chair under the awning rather than take the chance of finding themselves at the back of the line, wearying old joints by standing for long periods on the hard cement.
While the sun is a nice contrast from the early gray of yesterday, it’s still a cooler morning, so sweaters are pulled close to keep the chill at bay. Plastic bags rustle as newcomers fill them with food from the bins on the sidewalk. Today’s selection includes potatoes, blackberries and avocados‚ a boon for the weekly ration.
In it’s 40th year, the Blaine Food Bank now serves well over 300 families a week, and that number keeps growing. Made up of an entirely volunteer staff, it serves the Blaine, Birch Bay and Custer communities. And, while federally funded, it still relies heavily on donations from the community, local farmers, grocery stores and organizations such as Northwest Harvest to meet the demand. The money it receives from the government feeds the lion’s share of its patrons, but it’s just not enough.
While the food bank aims to be generous and tries to provide a well-rounded supply of food to customers, including vegetables, proteins and canned goods, funding cuts and increased demand have forced them to scale back the portions they give out.
“We’re getting 20 to 30 new families every month,” spokesman Jim Gregory says. “There’s a huge need.” He adds that August was their busiest month this year, with more than 5,600 individuals coming to their door for help. “A year ago we would have had 100 [families] a week; 250 would have been high.”
As the clock ticks away, the self-named “Food Bank Old Codgers Club,” a group of five to six regulars who show up early just as much for the company as the chance to sit while waiting, begins to pack the chairs away in anticipation. They give up their seats to make room for the line and lean on the wall for support instead. Finally, the doors open. “We’re open for business,” a volunteer says, and one by one, the customers trickle in to receive their food.
At 9:30 a.m., the line hasn’t gotten any shorter. Inside, volunteers bustle around, filling orders. Most are pre-packaged, but when a familiar face walks through the door, substitutions are made based on preferences and needs, if they can be accommodated. Bags and boxes of leafy green vegetables and bright red tomatoes and fruit cover the tables under a sunny window, ready for families to claim them. The boxes are packed full with meat and pasta and a variety of food items, and on the way out the door customers will receive perishables such as milk, bread and eggs.
The constant stream of people is met with friendly smiles and small talk, but the hands stay busy. In the back, more volunteers form an assembly line, quickly putting together packages to replace those that are whisked away. “We might get a break,” Sally Church, a volunteer, says as she hoists a box of vegetables to another volunteer. “But we might not.”
While the bounty seems plentiful now, thanks to contributions from local farmers and an abundant summer harvest, fall and winter are quickly coming. “There will be a time when we struggle to fill these boxes,” Church says. She estimated they would serve close to 120 families on Tuesday, but the numbers would continue to increase toward the end of the month. As the summer wanes and produce becomes less abundant, this will put an increasing burden on the food bank to meet demand.
Generosity from the community, both in time and money, keeps the food bank in motion. Many of the 30-plus volunteers who serve the food bank serve there full-time. Their hard work and dedication doesn’t go unnoticed by the crowds waiting their turn in the line. “They move really quick. This is the most organized, most effective and most generous food bank in the county,” long-time patron David Rogan says. “The people are absolutely wonderful, and I want them to know how much we appreciate what they do.”
Monetary donations help grease the wheel as well. This year, a Semiahmoo resident asked what the bank’s greatest need was. High on the food bank’s wish list was a box truck, and their wish was granted with a $20,000 donation. This gift allowed the food bank to buy a box truck with a power lift gate that served a two-fold purpose. The purchase helps keep the volunteers from being spread too thin and makes picking up food donations from across the county more efficient. This is a huge plus, since the Blaine Food Bank is second only to Bellingham in the number of families it serves in Whatcom County.
For many of those families, this resource is key to making ends meet. “It’s really survival [for me]. I get $41 in food stamps, and I supplement that with [the food bank] through the month. I’m low income, and it’s just not enough,” says a woman who wished to remain anonymous.
An anonymous member of the community wants to ease the winter worries of the food bank, and has issued a challenge that if the Blaine Food Bank can raise $25,000 by December 15 they will match the funds dollar for dollar.
A donation this size would be “a huge shot in the arm for our budget this coming year,” Gregory says. “We can make a dollar go much further than a person who goes to the store,” since the food bank is able to buy food for freight costs at pennies on the pound. The challenge began in mid-August and will continue until the December 15 deadline.
The Blaine Food Bank is located at 500 C St. and is open Tuesday from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m., Wednesday from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. and Friday from 9 a.m. to noon. Donations are welcome, and checks can be made payable to Blaine Food Bank and mailed to P.O. Box 472, Blaine, WA 98231.