Clark County Food Bank celebrates new warehouse

Spacious facility ‘dream come true’ for organization

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

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Last year, the Clark County Food Bank had to turn away the equivalent of five tractor-trailers of food due to lack of storage space.

This year, nothing will be turned away.

Tuesday saw the grand opening of the Clark County Food Bank’s new home — a warehouse and distribution center that’s many times larger, handier and more modern than the old space.

That old space, an 8,000-square-foot warehouse in Hazel Dell, was leased and required the addition of outdoor refrigerated trailers to squeeze in the perishable donations. The new space, owned by the food bank, is 22,000 square feet with more exterior bay doors, more refrigerator and freezer space, more dry storage space, a large repacking room, administrative offices and a big meeting room that doubles as teaching kitchen.

CLARK COUNTY FOOD BANK WAREHOUSE

• What: The area’s first owner-occupied central food bank warehouse.

• Where: 6502 N.E. 47th Ave.

• Cost: $4.2 million in private gifts and support from federal, state and local governments.

• Opened for business: Dec. 6.

• Features: Drive-in refrigerator and freezer, offices, meeting space/teaching kitchen.

• Distributions: The warehouse is not an operating food pantry; it stores and sends distributions to local pantries and soup kitchens.

• On the Web: http://www.clarkcountyfoodbank.org.

“Wow. This is a dream come true,” said Steve Rusk, business administrator of the Salvation Army of Clark County — which took over management of the original Clark County Food Bank Coalition in 1994. It was about a decade later, he said, that the Salvation Army and other partner agencies agreed that an expansion was in order.

Five years and $4.2 million later, the building is open for business.

“I wasn’t sure I’d ever see this day,” said James Fitzgerald, food bank operations manager, who’s been stationed at the tight Hazel Dell warehouse for more than 14 years. Fitzgerald thanked all the donors, large and small, who made the new building possible.

“This building is your building,” he told a gathering of hundreds of dignitaries, partner agency officials, citizens, volunteers and food bank clients who came out to celebrate Tuesday afternoon. “It’s the community’s building. We’re going to do a lot of good things here.”

The food bank distributed 3.7 million pounds of food to 114,000 local families between July 2010 and July 2011, officials said. This year, with no end of the Great Recession in sight, they expect to top 4 million pounds. Hungry clients won’t come to this building for distributions; rather, the warehouse feeds 27 local food pantries and soup kitchens.

“I feel so great today,” said Clark County Food Bank board president Jim Youde, who called the opening “a major milestone in the fight against hunger here in Clark County.” He thanked the families, individuals and foundations that contributed more than $2 million in private money to get the building built — along with the federal, state and local government sources that supplied the rest. And, he added, a recent $75,000 challenge gift from an anonymous donor means there’s a final $75,000 to go to declare the capital campaign a complete success.

Clark County Commissioner Marc Boldt said he recently was talking to constituents at an unemployment office and met one distinctly white-collar gentleman who has been out of work for about a year. He was struggling to pay his mortgage, Boldt said, and had arrived at a vital conflict: feeding his family versus keeping a roof over their heads. He was planning to head to the food bank for help, Boldt said.

“It really shocked me,” Boldt said. “The face of the typically needy food bank client has really changed.”

Several dignitaries pointed out that Gov. Chris Gregoire would have been at the event, except that she’s busy in Olympia dealing with a special legislative session that’s looking for ways to cut the public budget — again.

“We’re going to get a haircut this year,” said Boldt, and more folks will wind up hungry. That’s why a spacious new food bank warehouse is so important, he said.

Fitzgerald guided a reporter around the place for a tour — focusing especially on the gigantic side-by-side refrigerator and freezer, with doors large enough to drive forklifts in and out. Both chilly rooms also open onto the huge repacking area, where volunteers can sort donations on long metal tables.

And while Fitzgerald was showing off his new pride and joy, one new volunteer walked right up. He was Charles Spence, a Vancouver food-service truck driver who’s used to donating food but recently decided he had time to volunteer too. His children are all grown up, he said, so volunteering in school doesn’t feel quite right anymore. Fitzgerald seemed thrilled to meet him and eager to sign him up for more truck-driving duties.

On Tuesday the building was stuffed with the goods of the annual Walk & Knock food drive, which was held on Dec. 3 and brought in approximately 140 tons of food from all over Clark County. One area was an “avenue of agencies,” where many of the local food pantries supplied by the food bank distributed information and thanks.