by Mauri Ingram
There are over 100 organizations in Whatcom County working to provide supportive services to those experiencing chronic poverty and its associated effects: addiction, homelessness, incarceration, mental illness, and unemployment. Whatcom Watch believes these organizations often labor unnoticed by citizens — this column is designed to add daylight to their endeavors. We have contacted the organization appearing in this column and asked them to explain their mission. Because, in challenging times, being inspired and perhaps empowered by the acts of others is more important than ever.
One of more than 700 community foundations nationwide, the Whatcom Community Foundation is a catalyst for community progress. We support, promote, and often lead the promising programs, projects and initiatives that make living here better. Our work falls into four broad categories: we make grants and give scholarships; we invest in partnerships and projects that tackle community challenges; we collaborate with donors to support causes they care about; and we help strengthen nonprofit organizations. Like you, we care about the place that we share and all the people in it. Thanks to the generosity of donors from across Whatcom County (and beyond), the Community Foundation has invested more than $4.4 million in hundreds of organizations working in the communities of Whatcom County since July 1, 2019.
One of those funds is the Resilience Fund, our community’s bounce-back fund. It’s here to help anyone and everyone in our community recover from a crisis or disaster through a combination of emergency preparedness investments and response funding. We are laser-focused on the latter now, helping our neighbors respond to the myriad effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Thanks to generous gifts to the Resilience Fund since the onset of the pandemic, $570,000 is now in the hands of more than 25 nonprofit partners working hard to address the many and varied impacts of the pandemic. And, thanks to many Community Foundation Donor Advised Fundholders and several other funds, the Community Foundation’s total Covid-19 response grantmaking now totals more than $780,000.
The Community Foundation has also been serving as the Whatcom Unified Command Food Security Unit lead. In March, the Whatcom County Covid-19 Food Security Task Force was established to engage local and regional organizations involved in feeding operations and food security issues countywide. Based on our extensive work supporting local food and agriculture, Whatcom Unified Command asked us to convene the Food Security Task Force, which comprises more than 25 organizations.
The task force, which meets virtually twice a week, includes all regional food banks and public schools countywide, as well as the Opportunity Council, Council on Aging/Meals on Wheels and More, Whatcom Family Farmers, Salvation Army, Puget Sound Food Hub, Sustainable Connections, Miracle Food Network, YMCA, and retail grocery stores, including the Community Food Co-Op.
Our goal is simple, though by no means easy: To ensure food security for all Whatcom County residents, particularly those with barriers to food access (economic, mobility, health, etc.), while maximizing nutrition and minimizing health risks during the Covid-19 pandemic.
As food banks and feeding organizations across the United States are seeing record yet unpredictable growth in the need for their services, the supply chains for these organizations are already facing significant challenges. This is particularly acute for foods like rice, beans and consumer-packaged canned goods, as these organizations try to provide more shelf-stable products to clients.
Unprecedented Need to Feed
Washington state’s annual budget for its Emergency Food Assistance Program is $6 million; today, the current “burn rate” across the state for purchased food is estimated at $5.5 million per week. Typically, somewhere between 60-70 percent of food distributed by food banks is donated by the food industry; the rest is purchased. As many of those traditional streams have been interrupted, that ratio has basically been inverted; i.e. while demand rises to record levels, food banks are faced with having to purchase more of their food than ever before.
800,000 Meals in April
Locally, the pace of growth and inconsistent demand continue to make planning and execution difficult for organizations. Before the pandemic, about 15 percent of the county’s population experienced food insecurity; joblessness stood at 4.6 percent at the beginning of March. In the last two weeks of March, 10 percent of our workforce filed for unemployment. In April, an estimated 800,000 meals were distributed in Whatcom County by school districts, food banks, Meals on Wheels and others.
While we don’t know the duration of this crisis, we do know that the scope of need is tremendous, and we have to move fast. We are modeling food demand for vulnerable populations countywide, with an initial focus on forecasting food demand/supply, and then on logistical capacity/constraints and creative solutions to meeting demand.
Food Security System Planning
In early May, we brought members of the task force together for a work session to bring all facets of this work into a focused effort that merges big-picture thinking with practical action that both drives efficiency and builds economic recovery — for example, by leveraging excess farm capacity for production and enlisting the local restaurant sector to participate in food processing, preparation, storage and distribution. Or by coordinating efforts between food banks and school districts, so that families don’t have to go to two different places.
A Big Pivot
The Food Security Task Force workstreams cover six key factors of food security: production, processing, distribution, procurement, policy and financing. Production is focused on mobilizing our local farming community, as well as community gardeners, to plant extra crops. Questions in this area center around seed financing and food packaging, as well as uncertainty for farmers, who have seen markets they rely on — restaurants, caterers, etc. — shuttered with no certainty as to when, if or how much they’ll come back. We need to make sure that our farmers are economically viable and can produce at scale.
In terms of processing our local harvest, Bellingham Public Schools has the ability with their new, world-class central kitchen to produce up to 20,000 meals per day. Using this resource — as well as the production capacity of other districts — will take a major mobilization effort, but is one that we should invest in as the needs of our community change and grow this spring and summer. Our local restaurant sector can also be a great source of capacity and innovation in this arena.
We are expanding efforts to get more fresh food to people, knowing that perishables double the amount of truck capacity required, and that we’ll need to address challenges, such as refrigerated storage capacity. Having several community distribution hubs will be key in ensuring safety and access, as are food boxes for delivery to our most vulnerable citizens.
We are also working on more coordinated purchasing efforts among school districts and food banks. One immediate request from food banks and other local feeding organizations is the ability to purchase food through retail networks (Costco, grocery stores, etc.) rather than rely on their traditional national networks which are currently seriously constrained.
The task force is helping to elevate policy opportunities that will improve our community’s ability to meet basic needs during the crisis and potentially beyond. We need to support long-term solutions, from planting extra crops and more collective purchasing to enabling Bellingham Public Schools and others to scale their food operations.
Giving More Important Than Ever
Between foodstuffs, equipment and facilities improvements, we estimate funding needs of $1-$2 million. While philanthropy alone cannot meet this need, with the generosity of our entire community, we can infuse critical funding when and where it’s needed. For those who can, giving now is more important than it has ever been.
Mauri Ingram is president and CEO of the Whatcom Community Foundation. Previously, Mauri served as a consultant, restaurant owner, special project and nonprofit director. She holds an MBA from the University of Washington and has served on numerous regional and local nonprofit boards. She and her husband have twin daughters.