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Economy Strains Emergency Food Assistance Services

Interview with Development Director of Solid Ground Paul Haas

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SOURCE: Paul Haas

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Congress is currently in the process of appropriating funds for federal nutrition programs. The House of Representatives passed their version of the FY 2010 Agriculture Appropriations bill (H.R. 2997) last Thursday, which calls for increased funding for key nutrition programs that help reduce poverty and hunger in the United States, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children and the Commodity Supplemental Food Program. These programs are particularly crucial in the economic downturn while nonprofits such as Solid Ground, which offers emergency food assistance and other programs for over 30,000 people living in poverty in the Seattle, are struggling to make ends meet.

Paul Haas reports that Solid Ground saw an 18 percent increase in the number of people seeking food assistance in 2008. They’ve received $280,000 from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, but that’s still not enough to ensure that they are able to offer full services to the increased number of people in need. Groups like Solid Ground unfortunately have to ration services in order to provide help to everyone, which means giving less food to families and individuals that come to them for help.

Solid Ground isn’t the only group that has been stretched by the recession. Feeding America’s recently published "Local Impact Study" reveals that 100 percent of the 160 food banks it surveyed around the country reported increases in demand for emergency food assistance in 2008. And most of the groups—90.5 percent—cited rising unemployment as contributing to the increased demand for their services. Here’s what Haas has to say about how food assistance services are faring in the recession:

Nico Quintana: Paul, I was wondering if you can please tell me a little bit about your work with Solid Ground and a little bit about what Solid Ground does in Seattle.

Paul Haas: I am the development director for Solid Ground and, in that capacity, I work on a range of activities to bring in the resources we need to operate our program. That is everything from government grants to private foundations, corporations, individual contributions, overseeing events, volunteer activities, and so forth. Solid Ground is a community action agency and we have a broad range of programs to address hunger, homelessness, and poverty throughout Seattle and King County. Serving 38,000 people each year, the basic breadth of our program is basic needs; we have shelter programs and transitional housing as well as food/nutrition programming.

NQ: Could you tell me a little bit about Solid Ground’s work on hunger and food access in Seattle?

PH: We’ve been working on hunger issues since we first started in the 1970s. As a matter of fact, our very first program was a food bank. Over the years, we have expanded to support food programs throughout the whole county and in some cases, [the] state … actually, most of our programs do have a focus just on the city of Seattle. Our hunger action center includes food-access, which provides food transportation. We pick up food from the big food warehouses—like the Second Harvest Warehouse—and deliver it out to the various neighborhood food banks. We’re doing somewhere in the neighborhood of 8 to 10 million pounds of food deliveries throughout the course of the year; we’re doing deliveries basically everyday.

We also provide a tremendous amount of support for individual neighborhood food banks. For instance, we generate the resources to provide baby food, infant formula, and so forth for food banks throughout the city as well as doing a lot of work to generate increased donations of produce through a program we call Lettuce Link. We operate a food bank farm in the south county that generates about 15,000 pounds for that food bank in that neighborhood but we also work with gardeners throughout the whole city to generate another 35,000 pounds of produce for the food banks. [W]e [also] started a program called Farmers to Food Banks throughout the whole state over a year ago, which created four pilot sites throughout the whole state where food banks can contract with local farmers to grow produce specifically for that food bank community.

NQ: Have demands for your assistance changed at all since the beginning of the recession?

PH: Yes, totally. Everything has changed. And, as far as hunger is concerned, that is the first place where you see it. Citywide, there has been a pretty steep increase in demand at local food banks—anywhere between a 20 and 30 percent increase in the number of people coming. There are a lot of people coming for the first time who have never had to rely on food banks before. So what we’re seeing here really matches up with national trends and what people in other communities are seeing as well.

Another thing too, a whole other area I forgot to mention, is something else we’ve been involved in, so I’ll take a step back and then get right back to where you were heading. One of the things we have been really pushing on with our hunger action center are people who are seniors or people with disabilities who are not able to get to the food banks and are at far greater risk of hunger, food insecurity, and so forth. We have been really pushing to create a grocery delivery program and increase city resources/funding to support that, so we have been really advocating/pushing the city to provide additional funding for that. It has gone from absolutely no funding about five years ago to about $800,000 that they provide each year for those grocery deliveries.

So we do some deliveries but a lot of our partner agencies do those deliveries as well. That tracks with a growing problem: People who are having access issues and people who are at risk of hunger because they cannot get to a food bank—that has only intensified. So that response has become much more critical; It is becoming a survival issue rather than just a problem like it was. Now, it is becoming much more of a huge challenge.

NQ: Have you seen the increased demand for your services impacting the number of clients you can serve?

PH: We are serving more people and from what we’re seeing with our partner agencies is that everyone is striving to do more. Now that said—this is a very interesting thing, particularly in the area of food—when you talk to the people who operate food programs like food bank directors and so forth, the first thing they will say is "We’re doing well, we’re doing really good." You have to recognize that people are doing the best they can.

If you drill down a little bit when talking to folks, what you find out is that they are seeing a lot more people, that the amount of food that they get from Second Harvest, food donations, and other kinds of things like that are pretty much holding their own, they are pretty much staying about the same. Maybe a little bit of drop-off here or there, but for the most part, the amount is hanging in there. But, the problem is that they are seeing a lot more people. How are they dealing with that? We are serving everyone who comes to us but are we giving the same amounts? Well, no. Food banks are giving out less than they had given in the past.

There is a very controversial word that comes up with this: rationing. Are you rationing? Well, some people do not define that as rationing, but the fact of the matter is you have to look at the basic mathematics of it. You have more people coming, you have the same amount of food: Are you giving out less? Yes. People are hesitant to say that it is rationing, but food banks are having to give out less. That is a really long answer, but that is a very, very critical point because for people who have nothing, the place of last resort is the food bank system. The food bank system, particularly for helping people who are trying to raise their kids on a halfway-decent diet, is giving less food.

NQ: Thank you. As you know, the federal government recently passed economic recovery legislation. Do you anticipate that these new funds will help families in your area or help fund your programs?

PH: They definitely will, in a couple of different ways. We just found out that we are getting about $280,000 for our agency through the stimulus package. We are a community action agency and all community action agencies throughout our state are getting some part of the stimulus package. Our portion of that is about $280,000 and I think if you looked at it recently, it is probably a couple million dollars. I don’t have the exact figure but it is probably something in that area. It is meant for providing those basic services such as hunger programs, shelter, and so forth that would be meeting real basic survival needs. We just got word of this last week. We are going to be meeting later this week or early the following week to figure out exactly how we want to be using these funds, but we expect that it will be to bolster our ability to provide those services to an increased number of people. That is really what we are trying to do anyway. What we were trying to do before we knew about this was to look at those programs that were at the front line of responding to the people that are hurting the most.

NQ: Which programs would those be, exactly?

PH: For instance, we have a lot of transitional housing programs in which we work with people over the course of as much as a couple of years. We help them to first deal with the trauma of having to become homeless in the first place, but then to become housing-ready, to address past evictions and debt problems, to secure an income, and ultimately, to find stable housing. But that has become a real challenge for a couple of reasons: a lot of the folks whom we have placed in housing over the past year are losing their jobs or otherwise experiencing some type of financial crisis that is making it so that they have to work to come back to the shelter system. The increased unemployment is a huge challenge for those people who are most vulnerable to the downturn in the economy: newly employed people, many of the people whom we are working on transitioning into housing.

NQ: Are there any closing remarks you would like to make?

PH: What we are trying to do is to increase our response. [N]obody is aware of problems related to hunger; they usually go unseen. Anytime you can uncover that issue, uncover that experience, you can tell a story that is tremendously compelling and really forces the public to consider: Can we live with that? Can we live with the fact that over half of our seniors and people with disabilities in public housing go hungry? What you’re doing here will have the same kind of important impact on trying to catalogue where some of the gaps are, what some of the continuing problems are, so there can be the kind of response that needs to be there so that everyone has the adequate access to the food that they need in order to live a good life. So I think that is what we are struggling with on an everyday basis.

NQ: Thank you so much for participating, for your comments, and for the amazing work that you are doing.

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