North county food bank sees need skyrocket

Operation worried next year will bring even higher demand

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

Published:

 
photoVicki Suir is a volunteer who works the front counter at the North County Community Food Bank in Battle Ground.

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BATTLE GROUND — With the New Year approaching, pressure is mounting at the North County Community Food Bank, where 745 people have been added to its list of clients in the last 10 months.

Since February, the number of people who frequent the small storefront food bank in downtown Battle Ground has shot up from 1,366 patrons in February to 2,111 in November. But as the food bank's rolls increase, it prepares for dwindling donations.

"We haven't seen any signs of recovery this year," said Elizabeth Cerveny, the food bank's executive director.

Over the past year, enrollment in the bank's food assistance program has grown, she said, despite figures from the Washington Employment Security Department that show signs of marginal economic recovery statewide.

That's because unemployment continues to plague Clark County, where nearly one in 10 residents is unemployed. State economists place the actual rate of the county's underemployed--folks who may have a part-time job or sporadic work but don't make a livable wage--at closer to two in 10 residents.

It's a plight that Cerveny, in her first year as the food bank's executive director, understands firsthand. She accepted the food bank's position after spending time unemployed following a layoff from TDS Telecom in La Center.

Cerveny, who also serves as a city councilor in La Center, said people continue to struggle with inconsistent work and layoffs. In some cases, there are families with as many as 16 people living under the same roof who seek sustenance from the food bank.

There's little optimism those numbers will rebound in 2013.

One reason is because Congress is poised to cut an emergency program intended to help the unemployed find work, resulting in the widespread expiration of jobless benefits. In Clark County, the loss of the program will cause about 2,000 residents to exhaust their unemployment insurance.

"In terms of foot traffic at the food bank, I would expect that to cause an increase," said Scott Bailey, a regional state economist focusing on Clark, Cowlitz and Wahkiakum counties.

He said Clark County remains behind the curve in its recovery from the half-decade-long financial crisis. But with the forfeiture of unemployment benefits, the bar will be set even higher.

At the food bank, there's anxiety.

Vicki Suir volunteers at the food bank three times a week. A part-time caregiver, she also uses the services there.

So does her adult daughter.

Three years ago, she was laid off by Fleetwood Homes, where she worked as a group supervisor. Since then, it's been a struggle to get back on her feet.

As the end of the year rolls around, people's financial problems are compounded, she said.

"There are just more low-income people who need food assistance during the holidays," she said.

Grocery stores have been reluctant to make large-scale donations, Cerveny said, because food orders at local stores have declined to keep inventory costs low.

Additionally, aid from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's commodities programs has also declined since the beginning of the year. The programs provide emergency food aid to organizations serving low-income communities throughout the country.

In recent months, the food bank hasn't collected any frozen meat from the program. Instead, it's received only pasta, rice and canned goods.

In the last two months, personal donations have increased and been on pace to serve the needs of the food bank's clients, Cerveny said. Whether that's sustainable through the early months of 2013 remains a question mark, however.

"Thanksgiving and Christmas are the time of giving," Cerveny said of the higher number of personal donations the food bank has received in the last two months. "But come March and April, we'll have trouble having enough food to face the needs of the community."

Tyler Graf: 360-735-4517; http://www.twitter.com/col_smallcities; tyler.graf@columbian.com.