Downtown food pantries target 'changing face of hunger' on Vancouver's west side

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian arts & features reporter




Open for business: 2 p.m. Sunday, and Sundays thereafter.

“Grand” opening celebration: noon, Saturday, March 15. Food and games, but no food boxes will be distributed.

Where: 1801 Daniels St.

What it is: One Life is a one-visit-per-month food pantry that’s open on Sunday afternoons, beginning at 2 p.m., to those who qualify. You must sign up in person no later than 2:30 p.m. on Sunday to take a pantry “shopping trip.”

Facts: In 2012, One Life provided emergency food boxes for approximately 2,700 households and 10,200 individuals. Approximately 39 percent of One Life’s clients are children.

Call: 360-904-1273.

On the


Current location: 551 W. 14th Street, St. Paul Lutheran Church

Proposal: Leave current location in St. Paul church, buy commercial building at 906 Harney St.

Challenges: Raising approximately $500,000, securing City of Vancouver approval.

What it is: A one-visit-per-month food pantry that’s open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays to those who qualify.

That name: FISH stands for Friends in Service to Humanity. The name “FISH of Vancouver” confuses enough people that a subtitle has been adopted: Westside Food Pantry of Vancouver.

Facts: About to celebrate its 45th anniversary, FISH moves approximately 2,000 pounds of food through its doors every weekday. In 2013 it provided food boxes for nearly 23,000 households and 61,000 individuals. That’s a 19 percent increase from 2013.

Contribute: Call 360-573-7027 or visit the website.

On the

Hunger has soared on the west side of Vancouver since the beginning of the Great Recession, according to George Kaufer, president of the downtown food pantry FISH of Vancouver.

Leveraged by money from the Washington Legislature, the Meyer Memorial Trust and lots of grass roots community support, two important west-side food pantries are aiming to step up their game in response.

On Sunday, after about a year in transition, One Life will reopen a bigger, better pantry in the New Hope Foursquare Church across the street from Hough Elementary School. Meanwhile, FISH is reaching for the purchase of a west-side warehouse that would be more convenient for clients and volunteers alike than the cramped church offices it now rents.

All of this points to increasing need and a "changing face of hunger" on the west side of town, One Life executive director Andrea Walker said.

"There's a really wrong idea out there about what hunger looks like," she said. "We serve a lot of working poor. We serve many people with jobs who just aren't making enough. "I have never had to access a food pantry before," is what Walker often hears from embarrassed new clients.

She added that federal lawmakers recently settled on new cuts to food stamps — in addition to last fall's reduction — that will result in an average loss of something like $90 per month for a family of four. And then there are the genuinely needy families that "earn just a little too much" even to qualify for food stamps, she added.

Now add the west side's greater concentration of hard-core poverty, she said — that is, more folks who are unemployed, homeless, desperate. As One Life was getting ready last week for its reopening, Walker predicted: "We are going to get hit hard."

"I'm happy to see the additional support," Kaufer said of One Life's arrival nearby. "This is one of the lowest-income areas in Clark County. The need has really gone crazy."

One Life's new place

One Life was based for years at Vancouver Vineyard Church, just east of Clark College, until it was compelled to move. The operation was growing too big for the small space it occupied, Walker said — and the more it grew, the less she felt a firm foundation of in-house support.

So One Life went hunting. It found a willing new partner in the New Hope Foursquare church — and it also found a surprising amount of community support for its growth.

One Life won a $17,000 grant from the Meyer Memorial Trust for a commercial-grade pantry, with new refrigerators and freezers as well as ample shelf space. Volunteer contractors and workers did much of the remodeling and installation labor at cost — including the unwelcome surprise of asbestos abatement, which slowed the process. There were fundraisers at the Brickhouse Bar & Grill and elsewhere that brought in additional thousands, Walker said.

"The really interesting thing about this has been all the community involvement," Walker said. "These people have a heart for this."

The new pantry occupies the back of the church sanctuary, below the balcony. What used to be a mostly unused spillover seating area, according to the Rev. Graham Myhre, is now an accessible shopping-style food pantry.

"Shopping-style" means that clients are welcomed to walk through — with a volunteer guide — and pick what they want. That's a different way of doing business than most food pantries, which provide clients with pre-packed food boxes. Those don't always contain groceries the recipients actually want, Walker said, because it's a fact of the human condition that people are often finicky about what they put in their mouths.

Better to let people stroll through what's essentially a health-minded grocery store, she said. While patrons can pick what they like, the volunteer guides that walk through with them are armed with a laminated, color-coded copy of the federal government's latest "MyPlate" nutrition guidelines.

The color codes match shelves in the pantry. For example clients can see how much of their diet is recommended to be green vegetables, then go to the green vegetable shelf to stock up appropriately.

"Many of our clients are dealing with obesity, diabetes, things like that," she said. "One of our values is healthy eating."

Of all One Life's healthy offerings, the greater dignity of going shopping — versus being handed a box of rations — may be the best offering of all, Walker said.

She speaks from experience. Starting with her childhood and going all the way through her husband's loss of his lucrative technology job in the leading edge of the recent Great Recession, Walker has survived several bouts of real hunger and need in her life.

That's why, she said, "I never judge anybody. You never know what their circumstances are." She has no patience with unfeeling arguments about people who don't "deserve" help because of addiction or other problems, she said.

"What about their children?" she wondered. "Do we really live in a country that's so affluent, but we can't see our way to feeding hungry little kids? We should really judge who gets to eat?"

Walker has more plans in store for the revived One Life food pantry. Having started a community garden at Vancouver Vineyard, she's eager to do the same thing here.

"There's nothing like a tomato right off the vine," she said. She's eager as well to continue the six-week nutrition education program that One Life launched years ago -- long before other outfits, like the Clark County Food Bank, started making the connection between feeding the hungry and teaching them to cook.

Just visiting the pantry is a teachable moment, she said. She likes to recall one elderly Russian gentleman who turned down unfamiliar lentils, until he sampled them in a chicken dish a volunteer prepared. After that, he couldn't get enough of the healthful little legume, she said.

FISH habitat

George Kaufer of FISH said he just about wept with relief when state Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, called him last year to say the $1 million grant he'd applied for was approved at the last moment by an adjourning Legislature. The money spurred FISH to form a steering committee, which settled on a building to buy: the one now occupied by Fastenal Hardware and Tools at 906 Harney St. There's an art gallery there too.

FISH would love to spread out in its 10,000 square feet of space plus a dedicated parking lot, Kaufer said, after working for years out of 1,500 square feet with insufficient storage and nothing but metered parking. Parking has been an ongoing problem for volunteers and clients, and lack of storage has sent FISH running back and forth to a nearby warehouse where it borrows storage space from Friends of the Carpenter, a sister charity.

But the $1 million grant doesn't mean FISH is ready for a new habitat. First it's got to raise $500,000, approximately, as well as get approval from the city of Vancouver.

City guidelines governing the distribution of social services may be a stumbling block for yet another facility catering to poor people downtown, Kaufer acknowledged. Citizen objections have already been raised to a proposed apartment building for chronically homeless people that would be built across the street from Share House — on the grounds that all that poverty infrastructure will just be a magnet for more poverty on the west side.

But the need is already there, Kaufer said. That's why FISH is arguably the busiest food pantry in town. Based in St. Paul Lutheran Church on Franklin Street, across from the county office building and the courthouse, FISH distributes approximately 600,000 pounds of food annually. It serves 200 people, or 60 families, per day. There are 80 regular volunteers. For many years, Kaufer said, FISH has been "the major pantry west of I-5."

"We've just outgrown this," Kaufer said of the St. Paul space.

If all goes swimmingly for FISH, it will be able to move in next fall. Call Greg Flakus at 360-573-7027 or visit to learn more about the fundraising campaign.