A safe harbor in an era of food insecurity | Guest Column

By Steve Ulvi, volunteer

A common refrain, a widely shared meme, is that we live “the good life” surrounded by an inspiring maritime landscape; the fortunate residents of an exceptional, caring community. During economic turbulence and social fracturing it is natural to wonder just how strong some of our cohering community values are.

We need to look no further than to the small, unremarkable brown building at 500 Market Street that sits in quiet repose except for mid-day, on Wednesdays, Thursdays (online and Waldron Island delivery) and Saturdays when it comes alive to provide a wide variety of nutritious foods. For anyone who shows up. The Summer Nutrition Program for school-age kids begins on June 21.

The Covid Era has been an exceptional challenge for the dedicated Friday Harbor Food Bank Board and the sole employee, Manager Rachelle Radonski. Beyond the trials of covid safety are a complex interplay of disrupted supply lines, seasonally available farm products, fluctuating monetary donations, increasing local needs and an alphabet soup of supplemental food programs that may rise and fall depending upon source funding.

Rachelle is the cohering force and goodwill ambassador for our Food Bank. She exudes a passion for success with a contagious smile and boundless energy that motivates everyone. No holiday tradition passes unappreciated. Rachelle is supported by a capable Board that participates in the labors of the day. In 2021 nearly a score of frontline volunteers (formed into flexible teams that are carefully orchestrated by Rachelle) donated 3,708 hours to improve the building and continue this model food assistance program.

This little Food Bank is exceptional by any measure. The atmosphere out front and within the walls during busy openings is unconditionally welcoming and low-key. Rain or shine. The public is greeted individually, with a smile and light-hearted banter among friends who all understand the ebb and flow of tenuous life on ‘The Rocks’. The constant balancing act of limited short-term storage and the fluid process of receiving and distributing fresh, frozen and commodity foods is demanding. It requires the nimbleness of the dancer that Rachelle is. It is no simple task, given the exceptional food distribution numbers from an outlet that only hums with activity for 20 hours a week.

Ponder this; over 400,000 pounds of food was freely given to 6,783 customers (averaging 60 lbs. per visit) augmenting households that totaled 13,368 people during 2021. To picture the weight of food distributed, just imagine a stack of 148 Nissan Cubes (box-shaped cars) on Market Street. Of that total, 71,048 pounds (worth about $129,308) was donated by locals, businesses and organizations.

Some customers are relatively new to our community. However, many are seasoned islanders. A far greater number of our residents could qualify for food assistance based upon federal income guidelines. Rising inflationary pressure and local economic uncertainty as we approach another summer season, will very likely increase food insecurity for many households that are just hanging on.