Early in the morning, I set out on a food distribution run to the Bellingham Food Bank. Bellingham was hit hard by the recession, and many areas in the surrounding communities are considered ‘food deserts’. This leaves a large percentage of the population relying on food banks, and on the work of organizations like Food Lifeline, to reliably feed themselves and their families.
My partner today is veteran driver Bruce Baker, who tells me of his time in the Navy, and how that experience shapes his beliefs.
“Driving for Food Lifeline makes me feel like I’m doing good for other people again”, Bruce says as he strokes his salt and pepper colored beard.
We talk at length about Bruce’s job, how it’s his job to deliver and pickup huge pallets of food, at times weighing tens of thousands of pounds, to different locations across the Western Washington region. His discretion largely determines what makes it onto the truck and what doesn’t, and Bruce regularly refuses food that isn’t up to snuff.
“If I wouldn’t eat it, if my family wouldn’t eat it, then it doesn’t go on the truck” Bruce says with conviction.
As our truck rambles north towards Bellingham, the scenery becomes increasingly rural, views of the city scape making way for flat, green farmland, and rolling, evergreen blanketed hills. Bruce explains how despite appearances, these farming communities often struggle with food insecurity at a higher rate than their urban counterparts.
“It’s poverty, it’s isolation, it’s a whole mess of things that adds to it”, says Bruce, “That’s why we make these runs up here.”
Bellingham food bank is smaller than expected, with a tiny warehouse that holds boxes upon boxes of donated food. Inside I meet Mike Cohen, director of the food bank, who shows me around the facility. Beyond the warehouse there’s a clean sorting room for donated food, with volunteers already setting up for the day’s arduous work.
“About 20% of Bellingham’s population visits us at some point during the year; that’s a huge number of people that rely on us!” explains Mike.
We enter the front of the food bank, and I’m surprised to find a space that resembles a small grocery store, complete with food displays, artistic photos of produce, and shopping carts.
“We set this up to look like a store; we want our customers to have a dignified experience.” Mike says as we walk around the carefully piled tomatoes and potatoes sitting in rustic looking display crates.
As I look around the Bellingham food bank, I’m reminded that it’s often those we never expect to be struggling with food insecurity, are. By fashioning their space like a grocery store, the folks at Bellingham Food bank are ensuring that those that visit them know they’re still part of a community that cares.