For many communities facing food insecurity, COVID-19 has made a challenging situation even more difficult with meal and food bank programs impacted by the crisis. A number of food banks have reduced hours or their volunteers are not able to come in to help like they did before. Other programs face shortages of food resources.
To meet this growing need in Seattle and surrounding communities, the City of Seattle partnered with the National Guard at the request of service providers. Locally, the National Guard has stepped up to fill gaps in our food network by offering the assistance of hundreds of members in Food Lifeline‘s SODO distribution center and at several food banks in the region.
Even with all of these helping hands, some of our smaller community-based programs struggle to keep up with their usual activities, not to mention the increased demands brought on by this public health emergency. After re-deploying staff to support shifts in the City’s de-intensifying shelters at Miller and Garfield community centers, and working to open additional shelter capacity around the city, the Seattle Human Services Department (HSD) has been working to find ways to ensure these important food programs can also continue to operate.
This month, we began re-deploying HSD employees to support shifts ranging from food preparation and cooking, to assembling bags and packaging meals, to line management and delivering food directly to vulnerable clients in their homes. Some of our staff who are vulnerable themselves are taking on administrative tasks that can be completed remotely from their homes. We gathered photos and reflections from some of their recent work with South Park Senior Center’s senior meal program.
“It was a long, hard day, but so fulfilling! Everyone we worked with was so appreciative of our help,” wrote Terri, who helped prepare food in the kitchen. “They so frequently work understaffed. It seemed like the work went really fast with all hands on deck. My body may take a day or two to recover, but it made me really appreciate the people who are there every day, working so hard to help the members of our community who so desperately need it.”
“I was very impressed by the dedication staff has for their clients. Everything is done with a customer-focused lens, including the presentation of the meals in the delivery containers,” agreed Kevin, who also worked in the kitchen. “The large number of meals we made in just one morning emphasized for me the need in our senior community. And that need is growing.”
South Park is a unique and beloved neighborhood that could not be mistaken for any other in the city. Most of its residents are people of color, and the neighborhood is a hub for Latinx and other immigrant and refugee communities.* South Park has a long history as an affordable, working-class neighborhood, and residents support one another by dedicating a tremendous amount of volunteer hours to advocacy and stewardship. It is also a place where languages like Khmer and Spanish can be heard on the streets during more usual times.
South Park is also one Seattle’s two riverfront neighborhoods. The Duwamish River is a site of immense importance to South Park, Seattle, and regional economies. Four Native American tribes use the river for fishing and/or cultural ceremonies, and low-income, immigrant, refugee, and unsheltered families throughout King County harvest seafood from the river for sustenance and to maintain cultural and community traditions. *Click here to read a profile about the neighborhood.
“This volunteer opportunity brought me a deeper/personal perspective of what happens on the ground during a meal program and also from our community’s perspective when there’s reduced resources—staff, volunteers, food items, etc.,” emailed Brenda, who helped with a meal. “Delicious hot food made from scratch with great quality and healthy ingredients for approximately 150–200!”
Brenda also thought it was great to learn that Senior Center chefs Theary Ngeth and Lylal Huynh are often able to provide culturally specific foods. “I can only imagine how the elders may have felt when they tasted nutritious hot food made from the ‘heart’,” she continued. “A nutritious meal is a sign of love & respect that is offered through food.”
After her shift, Maria shared, “I’m glad I was able to contribute in my own way. It was a humbling and fulfilling experience.”
The South Park Senior Center typically provides congregate meals to older people in the area. It serves as a convenient place to gather for healthy, low-cost meals, and also supports the social health of attendees through conversations with others and wellness programs offered by the center.
With social distancing guidelines in place, meals and food bags are being prepared to-go, and many more are now delivered. In some cases, a large group of deliveries to the same facility can be coordinated with shuttle buses that would normally be driving participants to the meal program. In other cases, drivers are needed to deliver directly to where people live.
I drove bags with prepared lunches to a half dozen addresses—not just in the surrounding neighborhood but also Othello and Madison Valley. It was a little difficult at first, using my phone for delivery directions. I dropped off meals at houses and apartments, and even a boat at a marina and an RV in SODO. Some recipients were clearly excited to see a friendly face outside their front door. I’m not sure how many people they see on a regular basis while isolating at home under the Governor’s orders, so I made sure to smile and wish them a good afternoon.
“Thank you so much for the assistance,” said Patricia Beth Barker, Program Coordinator at the Senior Center. “We are a small nonprofit serving a few of the hardest hit communities in Seattle. Our seniors thank you!”
For information about senior meal programs or other services for older people, adults with disabilities, and caregivers in Seattle and King County, call Community Living Connections (toll-free 844-348-5464).