Local food bank struggles

F.I.S.H. of Orchards deals with a crowded space, dwindling cash, and long lines for food and clothes

By Patty Hastings, Columbian breaking news reporter



F.I.S.H. of Orchards

Hours: 10 a.m. to noon and 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays.

Address: 6008 N.E. 110th Ave.

Phone: 360-256-2440.

Did you know?

• In 2011, F.I.S.H. of Orchards provided 1,179,791 pounds of food to 66,763 people.

• The food bank opened its doors in January 1978.

F.I.S.H. of Orchards has a crowding problem. The emergency food and clothing bank can allow only five people inside at a time due to a fire ordinance. Sometimes the line for food stretches out the door, around the parking lot and into the street, said volunteer David Alt, vice president of the organization.

Recently, a woman had to wait outside in the rain with her baby. She wrapped the baby in a blue blanket to shelter it from the downpour.

"That hurt," Alt said.

Luckily, a man gave up his spot in line so they could get inside sooner, but the lack of space at F.I.S.H. of Orchards, 6008 N.E. 110th Ave., is a growing concern for its volunteers. The organization moved into the 2,000-square-foot building in 1993.

A simple solution would be to put up a carport, an estimated $1,000 investment. However, to have that carport in their parking lot, the organization also needs to purchase $4,000 in permits, Alt said.

F.I.S.H. would like to move into a building at least four times the size, with plenty of storage, a large freezer and a lobby where clients could wait out of the cold and rain.

Neither of these options looks promising due to dwindling funds. F.I.S.H. pays for the utilities -- lights, heat, water, sewer -- and liability insurance. Its monthly budget is $2,000 to $3,000, but the organization is starting to dip into its savings account to get by.

These struggles echo many other nonprofit agencies that are having to quickly figure out how to raise money and find donors before the reserves are gone.

"We have to try," Alt said. "It puts me in the shoes of clients who need food. It's not an easy thing to do,"

Families can come in once a month to get about $150 worth of groceries. If clients come in a second time, they can get only bread. It's not enough food for every day of the week, but it's enough to get by.

"We've never run out of food, thank goodness," Alt said.

F.I.S.H. gets its food from annual food drives, food banks, local grocery stores and individual donations. In the summer, people drop off produce from their gardens.

"We had so many tomatoes in here this summer, I got sick of looking at them," Alt said.

While F.I.S.H. earns food credits and money donations to buy food for as low as 5 cents a pound, that doesn't pay the light bill.

Many people hesitate to donate money because some charities have salaried employees, Alt said. The only paid person at F.I.S.H. of Orchards is the janitor, who works four hours a week for minimum wage. Everyone else is a volunteer. The 55 volunteers at F.I.S.H. logged 17,325 hours in 2011. Even the drivers, who donate their pickup trucks, gas and time to haul food, don't earn a dime.

"That's one of our standing jokes around here, that we're going to get a raise," Alt said.

Alt is a retired Bonneville Power Administration equipment operator. He's been volunteering at F.I.S.H. for two years.

He passed out about 500 fliers to people on the street, advertising a Dec. 11 fundraising event at Joe's Crab Shack. The restaurant donated 10 percent of their day's proceeds to F.I.S.H., about $400, and collected nonperishable food in their lobby.

Although Alt says meeting people in person yields a better relationship with prospective donors, he also recognizes that the organization needs to expand its public outreach. With the long waiting list of people wanting to volunteer at F.I.S.H., Alt hopes to find someone who will take charge of social media.

Jeannie Bays, who's been volunteering at F.I.S.H. for seven years, says it's important to realize F.I.S.H. of Orchards serves all walks of life.

"You see a wide range of people," Bays said. "I've learned not to judge."

When a woman drove up to the food bank in a nice car with two well-groomed kids, Bays said other clients started to comment. The woman's husband had left her with no money and no means to feed her children. She went from well-to-do to poor practically overnight.

Likewise, a small, local food bank can go from serving nearly 67,000 people per year to shuttering its windows indefinitely.

Patty Hastings: 360-735-4513; http://www.twitter.com/col_cops;patty.hastings@columbian.com.