People are hungry on Vashon because of a combination of low-wage jobs and expensive housing costs, according to Vashon Maury Community Food Bank Director Robbie Rohr.
Rohr and Amiad joined roughly 100 islanders and community leaders from island nonprofits last Tuesday night at a community forum to address the issue of hunger on Vashon and how to prevent it. “Who’s Hungry on Vashon,” was presented as part of Vashon Community Care’s (VCC) Telling Stories series and was funded by a county Community Service Area grant obtained by Voice of Vashon (VoV). The forum brought representatives from the Vashon Island Grower’s Association, Vashon Youth & Family Services (VYFS), Vashon Island Growers’ Association (VIGA) and the food bank onto a panel that answered questions about hunger and food insecurity. The panel discussion was interspersed with personal accounts from islanders who are dealing with these issues.
“What I am is dependent on others, and I hate that. I’m 92, and the senior center is my lifeline. I can get a ride and a hot meal,” Olde John Croan said as he read a letter outlining a hunger story of a 92-year-old islander named Henry who is nearly blind. “I can’t cook, and my finances are really tight. The center gives me good food, delicious salads and a little something extra to take home. The center also takes me to the food bank. Without it I’d starve and be alone too much.”
Rohr opened up the forum after the story and said that the goal of the night, and the personal accounts, was to humanize hunger and challenge assumptions about those who used social services, such as the food bank and free community meals. The community was also called on to think about why the problem exists and how it can be combatted.
“We’re going to begin a discussion about investing in the community,” Rohr said. “Social issues (such as hunger) are very complex and require us to think on multiple levels.”
Five other islanders took the stand to read personal accounts, including one from a single mother of two who left an abusive relationship, a 65-year-old island woman who uses the food bank after quitting her job due to an injury, an island couple struggling to make ends meet and a man who lost his job in the recession.
“It was so hard to walk into the food bank and ask for help,” Hawk Jones said as he talked about losing his job. “The food bank helped me when I needed it most. I’m now a food bank volunteer to help contribute to everyone who helped my family.”
Food bank volunteer coordinator Emily Scott used the stories as a way to make it clear that “there is no one stereotype for food bank users.”
“The food bank serves a diverse group with diverse reasons (for needing food),” Scott said. “The barrier between the haves and the have-nots that we think of as so rigid is actually more of a loose film that’s easily punctured.”
The stories being read were five examples of a much greater problem, Rohr said. She said that more than 7 percent of Vashon’s population (700 people) is below the federal poverty line; 15 percent of children are below the line and 17 percent of the island uses the food bank (200 households every week). More than 22 percent of students in the Vashon Island School District are on a free or reduced lunch program, according to district documents.
Meanwhile, VYFS’ Kathleen Johnson said that nearly 70 of the organization’s 202 mental health patients suffer from food insecurity, not knowing when their next meal will be. The food insecurity causes a life stressor that can further erode a family dynamic, she said.
“When a person’s life changes dramatically: a mental health diagnosis, an illness, a disability, this stressor in your life that is getting food does not help the situation or recovery,” Johnson said. “This can create an entire blooming of problems.”
When it was time to discuss solutions for the hunger problem, VIGA representative Merrilee Runyan talked about the organization’s Food Access Partnership, which provides fresh fruits and vegetables to families on food stamps. Emma Amiad from the Interfaith Council to Prevent Homelessness discussed the council’s free dinners served every day at island churches. Sarah Day, the Vashon Island School District’s nurse, said the district offers free breakfasts and lunches to students in need. She also announced a project that Vashon High School seniors are working on.
“A group of enterprising high school students is planning on doing a food pantry and needs assessment at the school,” Day said. “It’s a great idea, and it will help us see where needs are.
Vashon’s Joe Wubbold (Captain Joe), called on the island’s “young people” to volunteer, as many islanders are getting too old to do what needs to get done.
“Look at the color of most everyone’s hair in this room,” Wubbold said, referring to the mostly white-and gray-haired audience. “We’re getting old, and we need help. I know there’s going to come a day where I won’t be able to climb the lighthouse steps and flick the light on for you guys (at Point Robinson).”
Island real estate broker and community activist Emma Amiad then addressed the fact that to afford the average rent on Vashon, a person would need to make $65,000.
“Most people on Vashon make $25,000 a year,” Amiad said.
She then talked about her plan for a centralized mess hall staffed by volunteers under the guidance of a professional chef. According to Amiad, anyone in the community would be able to come for a meal and pay if they could. If not, they would get the meal free. She also called for a centralized social services building where all nonprofits could distribute their services.
“It’s something we really want to see happen,” Amiad said.
VoV recorded and archived the forum for later listening, and the event was video recorded for viewing on VoV TV Comcast channel 21.