FISH pantry buys downtown building

Better storage and access -- plus rent collection -- will improve operations, officials say

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian Arts & Features Reporter




o 360-695-4903

o Call Greg Flakus at 360-573-7027 to learn more about ongoing fundraising.

FISH of Vancouver, demand, 2009-13


o 360-695-4903

o Call Greg Flakus at 360-573-7027 to learn more about ongoing fundraising.

Miles of roadway and three annoying stair steps have long separated FISH of Vancouver, downtown’s major weekday food pantry, from the efficient and people-friendly fulfillment of its mission. New real estate is about to change that.

The busiest pantry in Clark County has been renting 1,500 square feet of ground-floor space at St. Paul Lutheran Church on West 14th Street for decades. There’s no room for commercial refrigerators and freezers, so the pantry has borrowed additional storage space anywhere it could find it. Every day, two Fish vans and a bevy of personal vehicles make a morning run across downtown with 2,000 pounds of food, even as approximately 200 hungry people start stepping up to get fed.

But some of them can’t step up at all, according to volunteer Rich Sherburne. For them, those three exterior steps might as well be a locked door. Welcoming them at the side door allows Sherburne and other volunteers to connect personally — which is crucial, they say — but the even better news is, these barriers between needy people and emergency food will soon be history.

After a capital campaign boosted by a $1 million grant from the state legislature, the FISH pantry has purchased its own spacious and stepless building, just a few blocks away from St. Paul at 906 Harney Street, for $1.3 million. It was a very favorable deal from seller C.E. John, president George Kaufer said; the John family was an early and generous supporter of the food pantry, he added.

Necessary remodeling and paying off a loan means the agency is still raising money toward an overall goal of $2 million, but the bottom line is that nearly 7,000 square feet of easily accessible space will make everything so much handier when the pantry moves in, probably in late spring, Kaufer said.

Glass double doors open onto 2,600 square feet of street-level storefront. No steps to struggle up. In back, there’s 4,000 square feet of warehouse space that will easily accommodate commercial-size refrigerators and freezers.

Not having to ferry stored food across town every single day will mean significant savings on fuel and related expenses, Kaufer said. “For 45 years, we haven’t had our own place for storage,” he said. Garages, backyard sheds, sister charities and local restaurateurs have all offered storage space at one time or another, he said.

“So many have stepped forward to help us,” he said, “and we want to thank all of them.”

Plus, instead of paying rent, the pantry will start collecting it. It will occupy approximately half of its new property, but the other half will continue to be the leased storefront of Fastenal, which sells industrial and construction supplies.

“It’s a very stable business, and it will be stabilizing for us,” Kaufer said.

Growth and need

FISH of Vancouver was launched in 1969 in an Arnada-neighborhood garage by folks connected with the First Presbyterian Church, according to a written history of the place. Within a few years, it had moved over to St. Paul. It never left, but in recent years the amount of need and the volume of food moving through the place has grown into a problem.

Limited storage capacity has meant turning down some donations. It usually takes a single day to run through everything on hand. Clothing distribution has stopped because of the premium on space and the need to focus on food. Clients often have to line up outside. Parking for customers and deliveries is tight.

Meanwhile, the pantry has set new records, every recent year, for clientele and for the volume of food heading out the door. Pounds of food distributed has risen steadily from approximately 457,000 in 2009 to 600,000 in 2013; the number of individuals served has risen from approximately 47,000 in 2010 to 61,000 in 2013.

Thirty-seven percent of the current clientele are children and 15 percent are elderly, according to Fish. In all, the place serves more than 5,000 individuals each month.

“This is the only food pantry that serves the west side. It’s a very low-income area,” FISH vice president Dick Kunkle noted. The economy may have turned around for some, he said, but “underemployment” remains an anchor around the necks of many. Plus, many transients call this area home, volunteer Marnie Wright noted.

There are over 100 active FISH volunteers, according to Sherburne, and volunteer coordinator Kelly Bettger added that more are always welcome.

“Maybe people think things are great, but our business just grows,” Bettger said.

Shopping, not boxing

“It’s really a perfect room,” Kaufer said of the storefront, because it will comfortably accommodate the pantry’s preferred way of doing business: letting customers do their own shopping.

The era of the pre-packaged food box appears to be fading, officials at various pantries have said, as customers are encouraged to browse the shelves and make their own selections just as in a grocery store. That cuts down on the waste that occurs when your box contains things you just don’t want. “They get a choice and nothing gets wasted,” Sherburne said.

It also cuts down on hungry people being treated like inferiors.

“You guys are the only ones who ever treated me like a human being,” is what one homeless man, who’s made the rounds of different pantries and services, has told volunteer Kathy Sluznis, she said.

“I really feel bad coming in here. I’m so ashamed,” is what Sherburne has heard. There’s nothing better, he said, than extending compassion to someone who’s miserable and humiliated and then hearing, on their way back out the door: “You made me feel good today.”