Food bank begins strategic plan, focuses on island’s ever-rising costs

The Vashon Maury Island Community Food Bank has embarked on a strategic planning process and has established a vision to guide the agency: that all people on Vashon will have access to nutritious food.

In support of that vision, the food bank will begin offering services beyond what it currently provides, according to Executive Director Robbie Rohr. This fall will see the addition of expanded hours, transportation assistance and the availability of more produce. By early next year, a work plan will lay out further changes, including classes on special dietary needs and health issues, efforts to raise community awareness about hunger, a greater focus on emergency preparedness and laying the groundwork for a move to a new location.

This planning work and the accompanying changes in food bank services are occurring against the backdrop of an increasingly expensive island, both Rohr and board member Judy Clegg say. Housing costs, including rental prices, have risen dramatically in recent years, and Rohr — and a variety of others — predict the future holds more of the same.

“For people who have a hard time meeting their basic needs, it is going to get worse,” Rohr said. “The cost of living is going to continue to rise, particularly for housing, and people will have no recourse.”

Clegg noted that the food bank board is trying to address this situation to the extent possible.

“A big piece for us moving ahead is that as more people spend more of their income for housing, it means they will have less to spend on their clothes, gas and food,” she said. “One thing we are really looking at is how do we try to offset some of those increases to make more food available to more people.”

To inform the planning process so far, food bank staff and board members have conducted surveys and hosted focus groups, examined food bank best practices and talked with other island social service providers. Later this month, the food bank will host a community dinner for current and former food bank patrons at the Burton Inn and gather more information.

Food bank statistics show that last year, one out of every nine islanders benefitted from the food bank — 1,255 individuals from 629 households. Groceries distributed provided the equivalent of more than 337,000 meals to island residents, and the Picnics in the Park program provided 2,700 free lunches to more than 450 children and teens. This summer, that number jumped to 4,400 Picnics in the Park meals — a large huge increase over last year. Rohr said that she believes that not everyone who could benefit from the food bank uses it — and that the number of those who need it is probably closer to one in eight islanders than one in nine. She stressed that the food bank is open to anyone who faces food insecurity.

“If you deal with hunger at all, if there are times you may not be able to eat well through the end of the month, then you qualify,” she said.

Currently, the food bank has three distribution times throughout the week as well as a delivery program for homebound island residents. Clegg noted that the limited evening hours—currently one night a week—was particularly notable during focus groups with Hispanic food bank patrons, some of whom work long hours in the summer months as landscapers and have a hard time accessing the food bank. To help address needs such as those, Rohr said another shift of evening hours will be added this fall to better serve all those who work but would still benefit from the service.

In the coming months, Rohr also plans for the food bank to be more pro-active about transportation and will be working closely with the new Community Van program to provide those services. She has signed up to become a volunteer driver, and some food bank volunteers have also done so. Rohr’s goal, she said, is to have transportation assistance each time the food bank is open.

While the food bank still has a large garden, it is no longer farming — a decision the board made earlier this year. At the same time members made that decision, they allocated some funds that had been going to the farm program to purchasing more fresh produce — a change visible this year in the food bank’s offerings. Also, Rohr added, an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer has been hired to lead Harvest Against Hunger, a Rotary First Harvest program the food bank and the Vashon Island Growers Association are bringing to the island. Once he is in place later this month, the plan is that he will work to establish a donation stream from island farmers, gardeners and other growers create a way to preserve foods to make the excess available in the off-season and educate people in how to use unfamiliar foods.

Looking to next year, possible additional services — with some dependent on funding — include classes on special dietary needs, such as for people with diabetes and a program for island health care providers to collaborate with the food bank patrons on the use of food for health. Additionally, Rohr noted that many food pantries provide nutritional information about the food they provide; she would like to do that as well and is seeking funds to do so.

In a different vein, Rohr said she intends for the food bank to place a larger focus on emergency preparedness issues in the coming months for itself as an agency, its patrons and to the extent possible with VashonBePrepared to benefit the wider community in a disaster.

Finally, a variety of food bank leaders over the years have talked about moving from the Sunrise Ridge facility, and that wish has now become a commitment. Ideally, a new food bank home would be in town and on the bus line.

“We do have a number of avenues we are exploring, none with money attached, she added.

While the board and staff are adjusting their work as part of their planning process, Rohr says increased community outreach is also part of the plan.

Clegg agreed.

“When we get to strategy, it will be broader that it has been in the past,” she said. “We will make hungry people a higher profile issue and make sure that it is an issue that does not hide in the background.”

She added that underlying the food bank’s new vision statement is how the community as a whole could be engaged.

“The vision is really to have Vashon be a community where everybody is committed to and engaged in making sure islanders will have access to nutritious food,” Clegg said.

This vision is tied to the changing economics of the island, as people on fixed incomes and those who work on the island see their incomes fall behind the rising cost of housing. As a result, they are priced out of living on Vashon — which has large ramifications for the island as a whole.

“Related to this issue is how do we keep the island diverse,” Clegg said.

If only middle and upper middle income people can afford to live on Vashon and not teachers, artists and employees of island businesses and services, something will be lost, she added.

“Then we are not the island we want to be. Then we are looking like someplace else,” she said. “We are trying to figure that out as an organization focused on food and nutrition. What can we do as an organization to help those who are at risk of leaving … to stay?”

This version corrects the location of the upcoming dinner for food bank patrons to the Burton Inn. It also adds information about people served and current evening hours at the food bank.

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