PORT ANGELES — Cars were lined up on Valley Street, queued to receive boxes of food and commodities.
Volunteers loaded boxes and sacks into trunks and backseats, asking drivers and their passengers to remain inside their vehicles and wait for the signal to drive safely away.
Welcome to the Port Angeles Food Bank in the era of social distancing.
Food bank Executive Director Emily Dexter was saddened by the necessity of minimizing contact with patrons, she said Friday.
Her previous efforts to turn the food bank into supermarket-style of delivery have been torn asunder by the rules of engagement against the novel coronavirus which causes COVID-19.
For the duration of the public health emergency, it’s a return to pre-boxed assortments of food for all patrons.
“We’ve spent the last 18 months trying to turn this into a grocery store so people could have choice and dignity, and now we’re right back to where we started,” she said.
Dexter said the food bank is no longer taking food donations directly from the public because of fears of viral contamination on packaging. Instead, supplies are coming from commercial sources and vetted distribution services, such as Northwest Harvest.
“We don’t have a clear picture on how much it (the coronavirus) lives on surfaces.” she said. “There seems to be a lot of numbers flying around.”
Kathi Sparkes, treasurer of the Port Angeles Food Bank’s board of directors, said the annual tuna drive, conducted by area service clubs and other organizations, was still being planned, but cans from the public would be quarantined before being brought to the food bank for distribution.
Monetary donations are welcome, Sparkes said.
“Our money goes a lot farther than it would with people going to the store and buying stuff,” she said.
Andrea Smith, director of the Sequim Food Bank, said Friday was her organization’s first day of drive-thru operations.
“It worked very well,” she said. “There are always some tweaks when you try something new, but we were able to serve our visitors as they came through.”
Sequim served 150 families on Friday, which Smith called a “high average.”
Like Port Angeles, Sequim was also declining food donations from the public, forcing the food bank to rely on distribution services and outright purchases from commercial sources, necessitating the call for grants and monetary donations.
The Forks Food Bank also converted to direct-to-car distribution this week, a mandated procedure to minimize contact between volunteers and clients. Food bank Director Pat Soderlind said her organization saw an increase of people seeking help.
“This past week, we saw about 100 clients,” she said. “That’s up from what we see in a week’s time, which could be anywhere from 40 to 70. One hundred is quite a few.”
Soderlind said the Forks Food Bank was operating under emergency on-call conditions, which means she would open the building for people needing food outside of normal business hours.
Despite distribution challenges, Dexter said she was optimistic that her food bank could continue to feed the community. Food supplies have been steady, despite an expected uptick in community need.
On Friday in Port Angeles, more than 50 food boxes had been given out in the first hour of distribution. Dexter said she expected the daily total to surpass the 80 or so boxes given out during each of the previous Monday and Wednesday distributions.
Although food supplies are good at this point, the Port Angeles Food Bank has had to purchase foodstuffs that had previously come from public sources. Costs have tripled, Dexter said, but she was hoping that supplies from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Washington Department of Agriculture would help knock down operation costs.
In addition, Dexter said the food bank had arranged to receive 40 pallets of food from the Seattle-based Northwest Harvest hunger relief agency.
“That should be able to make boxes for, to our best guess, for at least five weeks,” she said.
“We have food on the way,” Sparkes said. “We have money promised from government agencies. Everyone is helpful and cooperative and working to help the community.”
Both the Port Angeles and Sequim food banks are currently seeking additional warehouse space to store the bounty.
Smith said community and tribal food banks across the Olympic Peninsula have formed a network to help each other out when necessary.
Soderlind said the collation allowed a sharing of resources if one location runs low or another has an abundance.
Amid fears of “shelter-in-place” restrictions that could be put into place by the state if the COVID-19 outbreak becomes more widespread, the food banks have been deemed an essential service and would continue to operate.
“We will not be closing down,” Dexter said. “We will continue to operate the drive-thru as long as we have food.”
Dexter acknowledged the challenges presented by the current times and circumstances, but she was hopeful that people would not have to go hungry.
“As food bank workers, we weren’t exactly trained to be FEMA, but this is new and it feels a little that way,” Dexter said.
“We do what we do and we’ll continue to be on the front lines to help our community as much as possible.”
With the optimism that people will be fed, Dexter said extra help is always welcome.
“We need volunteers and we need money. And we need patience and we need kindness” she said. “And we need people to stay inside and wash their hands.”
Smith echoed Dexter’s optimism about the mission of fighting hunger.
“We’re going to keep on doing it,” she said.
Soderlind said she was confident that her organization would continue to provide a needed service.
“We’re pretty strong out here,” she said. “We’re all working together to make it work.”
To volunteer at the Port Angeles Food Bank, fill in an on-line application at www.portangelesfoodbank.org/volunteer-application-covid19.
Donations can be made by mail at Port Angeles Food Bank, PO Box 1885, Port Angeles, WA 98362, or on-line at www.portangelesfoodbank.org/give-money.
Food is distributed at 402 S. Valley St., on Mondays from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Wednesdays and Fridays from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Volunteers for the Sequim Food Bank must download and fill out application forms at www.sequimfoodbank.org/giving/volunteer to be delivered to the food bank at 144 W. Alder St. Monetary donations can be mailed to PO Box 1453, Sequim, WA 98382, or online at www.sequimfoodbank.org/giving/give-money
The food bank is open Mondays from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., and Fridays and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon.
Forks Food Bank is at 181 Bogachiel Way. Regular hours of operation are Tuesday and Thursday from 3 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. For information on how to volunteer or donate, call 360-640-8211.