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Stories from the Harvest: October 2022

Getting Food Where it Needs to Go  |  Strengthening Community through Volunteerism  |  Getting Them to Graduation

Getting Food Where it Needs to Go: Feeding Seniors in Eastern Washington

Paige Collins, Executive Director of the Council on Aging and Human Services (COA) in Colfax, WA, admires the wheat growing tall and full in her backyard. “It’s a banner year for wheat and we love wheat over here – you can’t have Wheaties without wheat!”

She knows that some years, the harvest is not so favorable. Some years there are droughts and wildfires to contend with, and even in good years, profits are relatively small for most farmers. “When you learn how hard these farmers work for so little, it is jaw dropping. But there is a sense of pride in the work here. Many farmers have been doing this work for generations.”

close up of wheat with harvesting in the backgroundA largely agricultural community, Whitman County spans nearly 2,220 square miles. The Council on Aging and Human Services provides nutrition and transportation services to those in need – they serve over 20,000 meals a year, support 13 rural food pantries across the county, and provide hot prepared meals at 8 senior meal sites. In most of these smaller rural communities, the primary food outlet is the equivalent of a gas station grocery store with limited options for fresh produce.

Paige and her staff seek to get food to the communities where they are, since transportation options are limited and can be unreliable, and across a large geographical space, gas prices have made any kind of travel cost prohibitive for many people.

Senior meals are provided in community centers, senior centers, and as pop-ups in local cafes. Meals are provided at no cost, though donations are accepted. No one is turned away due to lack of funds. No one is required to show ID. These congregate meals provide low-barrier options for seniors and community members to access hot meals and, just as important, community. Being able to share food and socialize with friends and peers regularly reduces loneliness for traditionally isolated communities. It also breaks down stigma for low-income or food insecure people.

As costs for consumers increase, the food pantries are also seeing more visitors. It’s unusual to see so many new families,” says Paige, “It’s terrible that there’s such a great need, but great that we can provide a useful service.” This summer COA worked with the Washington State University Eggert Family Organic Farm and Runner Bean Ranch to source produce for their pantries to make sure visitors would have access to fresh local fruits and vegetables.

Though inflation, supply chain issues, and the ongoing pandemic pose logistical and financial challenges, Paige and her team leverage a dedicated cohort of volunteers to ensure that people are well-fed, well cared-for, and feel connected to their communities.

Strengthening Community through Volunteerism

black and white photo of NWH volunteer, Brianna, who is holding up a book with the title, "Yakima"Brianna Henry has been a Northwest Harvest volunteer since 2018 and comes from a family that believes and practices service to others. “I realize there are many ways to serve and help our community. We need boots on the ground, and we need help with laws and policy – I’m boots on the ground”.

Brianna was born and raised in Yakima. She left to attend Western Washington University and moved back to her hometown in 2015. She works as a career and college coach at Stanton High, an alternative high school, and teaches summer school at the juvenile detention center. As a teacher she sees firsthand the connection with outside distractions like food insecurity and the effect it has on a student’s ability to focus and learn.

“I volunteer at Northwest because I believe in food justice for all. I see the negative impacts food insecurity has on my students and their families on a regular basis and I wanted to take a step to make some impact in that area. Having consistent access to healthy food is a foundational part of student learning and success. Students have a difficult time reaching their highest level of achievement when they are hungry or thinking about if or when their next meal will come. That becomes top priority and can lead to anxiety, stress, sadness etc. No child or family should go without food on the table or not knowing how to access food support at any time. Food is a right and I love that Northwest Harvest embraces that message and lives it out. It has been a unique experience to work on a different side of food justice- helping support our local food banks, rather than volunteering to hand out food directly. Both are positive- just different- experiences, and I plan on continuing to volunteer and serve in either capacity that I can. I am extremely excited for the Northwest Harvest free grocery store for our community. We are so lucky to have such a strong and dedicated team fighting for food justice in our state and especially in our local community. I am grateful to be a small part of that puzzle.”

And, we at Northwest Harvest are grateful that Brianna Henry is a part of our puzzle. It takes all of us dovetailed together to complete this picture. Northwest Harvest has recently reopened food drive donations. Learn more about how you can contribute:


Getting Them to Graduation: College Students Facing Hunger

This fall, hundreds of thousands of people started their postsecondary education, some returning, some just beginning. While exciting, many students may also be experiencing anxiety. Though as many as 41% of students on college campuses in Washington State struggle with food security, postsecondary hunger is not a widely discussed topic. Lindsey McEwen, Food Pantry & Basic Needs Coordinator at Eastern Washington University, is trying to change that.

Lindsey started her work with the Food Pantry in September 2021 and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic was obvious: in fall they were serving 50 students a week and by spring of 2022 that number had tripled and the pantry was sending students home with thousands of pounds of food a month. It was clear to her that not only did students need support accessing adequate food, but students often also needed other resources, like healthcare, stable housing, and other necessities.

Lindsey, herself enrolled in a graduate program for Social Work and Public Administration, sees the need for resources beyond food as a key element of keeping students enrolled in school. The need is only growing greater: in the spring of 2020, across the country almost 3 in 5 college students experienced some form of basic needs insecurity including housing and food insecurity.

There are many reasons that students may experience post-secondary hunger: students may grow up in poverty and not have financial support from families, older students returning to school while raising families of their own, higher costs of food and housing, limited understanding about eligibility for SNAP, and inadequate financial aid packages.

Lindsey herself has experienced housing insecurity during school, which makes her work now personal: “When I lost my housing as an undergraduate, I had no choice but to drop out, so for these students we serve now my biggest goal is retention: what can we do to help you finish your degree? It’s challenging because people don’t tell you why they drop out of school, they just disappear and often there are resources that exist that could have helped them stay. There’s a lot of stigma that these young people must contend with, and a general lack of outreach and awareness about what services and resources they might be qualified for on campus. Most students don’t know that they may be eligible for certain accommodations or services, even if they don’t have a documented disability.”

For students to succeed in school, they need to have their basic needs met, which is why, in addition to her work with the Food Pantry on campus, Lindsey helped organize a Basic Needs Fair in spring 2022 that featured representatives from organizations that provide support for everything from food to mental health services to share information with students. Lindsey is also getting trained as a navigator for the Washington Healthplanfinder, does presentations on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, and assists students in filling out their applications for nutrition assistance.

Though historically most college students were not eligible for SNAP benefits, that changed in January 2021, with the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 in response to the pandemic. This temporary legislation expanded eligibility through the end of the declared public health emergency. This means that independent college students, students eligible for federal work-study, and students whose expected family contribution is zero on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) are eligible to receive SNAP.

Though there is an effort to make this expanded eligibility more permanent, there remains much work to be done. Northwest Harvest is part of a coalition advocating for Hunger Free Campuses and helped pass legislation that expands access to SNAP and established financial emergency grants to help community and technical college students manage the cost of unpredicted expenses so they can stay in school. We continue to advocate for policies that increase access to nutrition assistance for students so they can graduate and pursue the life they imagine for themselves.