Cars line up for blocks every Wednesday morning at the Rainier Beach Community Center in South Seattle. The line disappears from sight but continues to wind through the neighborhood. It’s a community still coping with the effects of the pandemic and people are here for a fresh food distribution organized by Food Lifeline and Rainier Valley Food Bank.
Four semi-trucks bring mountains of food boxes stacked six feet high, as the staff races to get today’s distribution underway. But the most important part of this operation is the team of more than 40 volunteers, many from the community, who put their hearts into this effort to keep food on the table for people and families in this underserved neighborhood. It’s given birth to a group of volunteers who have bonded and share a commitment lending a hand every week – now 36 weeks in a row!
On this day, the team will distribute fresh produce and dry foods to 1,478 families in just three hours. A new record high, following the week before and records set every week since July, proving that hunger in the pandemic continues to rise unabated.
Each Wednesday, the mission is the same. Mask up, socially distance, and move food. “It’s amazing to watch our volunteers run the production”, says Food Lifeline’s site lead, Aaron Czyzewski. “Every week our team comes up with new solutions to help extend the number of households we serve.”
And that may be because one of the regular volunteers is a former engineer for the Boeing Company. It’s easy to spot Art Rusche smiling with his eyes beneath the black facemask. He directs traffic with an orange flag in a carefully choreographed dance that keeps traffic moving, and food flowing.
“We’ve been working at this for months”, says Art. “Every week we figure out new ways to be efficient.”
While the team will load up thousands of boxes of food today, it’s not the mechanics of the distribution that keeps them coming back.
“It’s the connection with the people”, says Stina, a long-time volunteer here. “It creates connections with the local community and lets us check-in with people during this pandemic. For many of them, especially seniors, this distribution is their only outside contact with the world”.
“It’s the smiles”, says Art. “That makes all of the hard work worth it.”
“I can’t tell you how many smiles and thank-yous I receive every week”, says Lisa, another member of this mighty volunteer team.
Many of these volunteers have experienced food insecurity at some time in their lives, and that makes this even more important. A chance to give back what they were so freely given in the past.
According to Art, his family came to this country with very few possessions and even less money. It was the help and caring of those people decades ago that help drive him today.
“It really is about giving back”, says Art. “And I get to do it every week!”
While the team sends families home with beautiful produce and other food every week, sometimes it’s something a little special.
“What’s wonderful about Food Lifeline’s community distribution is that we provide additional resources like dairy, meat, diapers”, says volunteer Kennedy. “…and sometimes even more fun items like cakes and pies around the holidays.”
Every week is a heavy lift for these volunteers, and weather is seldom agreeable. In the rain and wind, they continue to smile – ribbing each other playfully, and celebrating the choice they’ve made to make a difference in the community they live in. They’re more than a team, they’re friends.