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Serving the Community: Seattle’s COVID-19 Emergency Food Response

The City of Seattle recently released a report about the 2020-2021 emergency food response during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic and thanking the many partners involved in supporting our residents. Since the beginning, food security has been a top concern as the unprecedented health and economic crisis dramatically increased the number of households struggling to put food on their tables.

The City joined partners across King County to increase investments and pivot the work of some employees to focus on increasing food-related services. Of particular concern were residents disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and economic downturn, including older adults, low-income children and families, communities of color, immigrants, refugees, and unsheltered individuals. Below are a few highlights of these activities:

Food Banks and Meal Programs

With a sudden and significantly increased demand for food and meals, food banks quickly changed their service models to keep staff and customers safe and began or expanded meal delivery programs. The City supported these efforts by partnering with the Seattle Food Committee to provide and distribute personal protective equipment (PPE), sanitation supplies, and bulk purchases of high-demand, nutrient dense foods. The City also increased its usual investments to Seattle Food Committee members, providing more than $2.4 million in direct grants in 2020 and more than $1 million in 2021 to support food bank operation and food needs.

Meal programs that serve older adults and those experiencing or transitioning out of homelessness also quickly pivoted and ramped up their services. In the first year of the pandemic, more than one million meals were provided at over 40 shelters and permanent supportive housing programs thanks to partnerships with OSL and FareStart. Older adults across King County received more than 950,000 meals from more than 50 meal sites and programs through home delivery and pick-up.


King County Metro (through the Access paratransit program) and Sound Generations (Hyde Shuttles) provided critical support to the senior meal programs and food banks. These services pivoted from passenger transportation to delivering food and meals to older adults and other vulnerable populations. The two organizations made over 216,000 trips to deliver products from food banks and meal programs to older adults and others in need.

Community Food Fund Grants

Through a partnership with United Way of King County (UWKC), 25 community groups received nearly $1 million in grants to support efforts such as providing culturally appropriate meals for seniors, running pop-up food sites, supporting urban agriculture and community gardening, and collaborating with culturally relevant restaurants to provide hot meals to vulnerable communities. The City and UWKC recently extended these grants through September 2021 with an additional $1 million so organizations can continue serving their communities.

“The grocery delivery service was a lifesaver and was an extremely welcome resource during the winter season. Being able to have access to staples for holding me over during the rainy, colder months to make healthy foods has been an incredible gift.”

Queer the Land client. Queer the Land used the Community Food Fund grant to provide perishable and non-perishable food to a network of Queer, Trans, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color communities in South Seattle.


A member of the Washington Air National Guard closes an emergency food box packed at the Food Lifeline temporary site in Seattle, Wash. on April 21, 2020.
(U.S. National Guard photo by Joseph Siemandel)

Food banks and meal programs are highly dependent on volunteers, many of whom are older adults and thus more vulnerable to COVID-19. As a result, service providers saw a significant decrease in volunteers at a time when demand was increasing, and delivery models became more labor-intensive. To help address this challenge, HSD redeployed more than 60 employees to meal programs from May-July 2020. The City also joined countywide efforts to advocate for the National Guard to be deployed to support the essential functions of the city’s emergency food system. National Guard members worked at food banks and meal programs throughout 2020 and into 2021, with around 123 deployed at 23 Seattle food banks and King County (including Seattle) senior meal programs at the end of December.

Partners including UWKC and the Washington State Department of Commerce also increased the number of AmeriCorps members assigned to hunger relief service providers. In March 2021, the Department of Commerce began providing a temporary employee placement program in partnership with workforce development councils to continue meeting staffing needs as the National Guard deployments began to wind down.

School Meals

Seattle Public Schools operated 41 meal sites and several delivery options to ensure that families of students could still access school meals even while the district was operating under remote and hybrid learning models. The City partnered with the school district and other community-based organizations to supplement these efforts. As of March 2021, these partnerships have provided more than 83,000 fresh bags of produce, 78,000 weekend food backpacks, and 9,000 holiday meals.

“SPS kitchen managers relish the days they can promote fresh, healthy foods at meal sites. They’ve noticed significant increases in participation rates on the days produce bags are available.”

Emme Collins, Head Chef, Seattle Public Schools

Emergency Grocery Vouchers

The City set up a new Emergency Grocery Voucher program within the first weeks of the pandemic and provided more than 14,000 households with seven months of grocery assistance.

Two $20 paper coupons marked Emergency food Voucher with City of Seattle and Safeway logos

“My family has been receiving grocery vouchers from the city and I just wanted to say thank you. I don’t know how to express in words how much this has meant to us. It’s provided us security in these difficult times, and showed that we aren’t forgotten. We matter to our city. I love Seattle!”

Grocery voucher recipient

View the recently published report to learn more about these and other efforts to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic from March 2020 through March 2021.

The City of Seattle is deeply grateful for, and humbled by, the community partners who directly served people food and meals every day, and for the agencies and organizations that provided systems support, grants, and more in a collaborative response to community needs. We recognize that the economic impacts of this crisis will outlast the public health emergency. Addressing food insecurity and supporting a sustainable food system alongside community partners will continue to be a priority as the City considers a just recovery.

**This article was also cross-posted to the Office of Sustainability & the Environment’s Greenspace Blog