The National Guard is helping out at food banks across Washington.
The National Guard is helping out at food banks across Washington. KAREN DUCEY / GETTY IMAGES

On a press call Thursday, Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) director Derek Sandison laid out a pretty bleak picture of the state's level of food insecurity for the month of May.

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Since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, the number of people in line for food has doubled from a baseline of 850,000 to 1.6 million. Katie Rains, a food assistance specialist at the WSDA, said the state expects that number to grow past 2 million in the coming weeks. There are a little over 7.6 million people in Washington, according to the census, so that would mean the state, the feds, and philanthropies will need to feed 1/4 of the population "through September if not through the end of the year," Sandison said.

Sandison says we're burning through $5.5 million per week restocking the state's ~500 food banks, which is, incidentally, roughly the same amount of money the legislature allocates to the Emergency Food Program (TEFAP) for an entire year, according to Leslie Connelly, Inslee's budget assistant for national resources.

At the beginning of April, state lawmakers tapped $10 million from the rainy day fund for food. At the end of May, the Feds will start spending $6 million a month through the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) to deliver fresh milk, fruits, vegetables, and protein sources. Kiran Ahuja, CEO of Philanthropy Northwest, who is running the Washington Food Fund, said they've raised about $3 million so far.

Since the state money is pretty much burnt up, and since some of the federal money isn't coming until the third week of May, Washington and its philanthropic partners need to find $11 million tomorrow just to cover the next two weeks. And that assumes the current burn rate. If the unemployment rate goes up, the money we need will go up, too. Ahuja thinks philanthropies probably need to do better than $11 million, but said "there's a bit of donor fatigue setting in."

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"And frankly," she added, "There are questions about what is the role of government, how much should they be stepping in, and can philanthropy fill the gap? There is this lag time for when this federal money will kick in, and there’s nothing we can do about that. Systems are broken."

Sandison said the old food bank model is no longer operable given physical distancing requirements. Food pantries have basically had to switch from a store model to a curbside delivery model, which is a more labor-intensive process stressing an already decimated volunteer base. The WSDA also has to rely more on shelf-stable products, Sandison said, which forces them to compete for beans with other states and massive grocery store chains. "We’re paying higher prices than we normally would," he said. "We’re bringing perishables back into the supply, but it will take a while."

If you want to help, Rains said donating to the Washington Food Fund, which pays out to the state's three big food bank distributors (Food Lifeline, Northwest Harvest, and Second Harvest) will stretch further than your retail dollar at the grocery store, due to their ability to buy wholesale. You can check out other ways to help and volunteer on the state's coronavirus website.