Before FISH of Vancouver’s food pantry doors had even opened on a rainy December morning, people bundled in puffy coats and rain gear stood in a line stretching along the outside of the building.
“People start waiting in line sometimes an hour before we open,” said FISH Executive Director James Fitzgerald. “And there’s a line most of the day as people are waiting to get in.”
High demand has become typical at FISH and other local food distribution sites as Clark County residents bear the impacts of inflation. Food prices are up 10.6 percent nationwide from last year, according to the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index. Prices of cereal and bakery products, as well as dairy and related products, increased 16.4 percent over the year.
These price increases, along with high gas, rent and other living costs, have caused FISH to see need like never before. “As of April and beyond, it has just continued to skyrocket, the number of clients we have,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re serving more than 100 families a day now, where we used to do about 60 to 75 families a day.”
FISH’s downtown shopping-style food pantry allows anyone in need to select their own free, fresh food once per week. People have their choice of breads, fruits, vegetables, frozen meat and other items. Clients can shop for nonperishable goods once per month, as well.
Vancouver resident Vera White shopped at the pantry with her sister on a Thursday morning. The amount she receives in food stamps recently fell to $125 per month, she said.
“I have to come here now,” White said. “I don’t have a choice.”
From April through October this year, the number of households FISH served nearly doubled compared to the same period last year, surging from 7,856 to 14,325 households.
These trends are visible across the county. Between July and October, the Clark County Food Bank’s network has served nearly 6,000 more families per month than last year – a 66 percent increase.
“We hear stories from clients,” Fitzgerald said. “That most of them are working and that their rent’s gone up by $300 a month, or their fuel prices have gone up, or food prices are crazy.”
FISH Volunteer Coordinator Megan Brown said many clients are new, referred by friends and family. The organization has also seen an influx of Ukrainian refugees, Brown noted. Signs throughout the food pantry are translated into Spanish and Russian for non-English speakers.
In addition to the shopping-style pantry, FISH offers a daily snack window with pre-packed food boxes. The boxes’ contents vary based on donations, but typically include items like salads, sandwiches, chips and drinks.
Richard Brown, 79, said he has been living on Vancouver’s streets for about three months. He would sometimes scavenge for food in dumpsters until law enforcement told him to stop, he said. Without a place to cook, the shopping-style food pantry isn’t ideal for him. The snack window, consequently, has become a staple for him over the past month.
Providing these options has been beneficial for clients, according to Fitzgerald. To better meet people’s needs, FISH began offering the shopping-style pantry last spring. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, clients used to stand behind a window and tell volunteers what they wanted from the pantry.
“It’s much more dignity, and just a better situation for the family to select exactly what they want and need,” Fitzgerald said.
Just as Clark County residents are feeling the squeeze of rising prices, so are the county’s nonprofit food suppliers. “We’re having a hard time keeping supply of basic staples, like peanut butter and jelly, soup, canned fruits and vegetables, just because the demand has gotten so large,” Fitzgerald said.
Additionally, as government-funded COVID-19 programs have ended, Clark County Food Bank inventory — which supplies food for places like FISH — has decreased. Unable to rely just on donations, the food bank will likely be purchasing more food than ever before, said President Alan Hamilton.
Fuel costs have also spiked for the food bank. “We have trucks that run on diesel. Diesel still is very high,” Hamilton said. “Our fuel bill used to be $800 to $1,100 a month. Now it’s as high as $3,000 a month or more.”
Fortunately, November and December food drives like the recent Walk & Knock are helping meet demand. “It’s pretty inspiring on our end, especially during this time of year, to see so many food drives,” Hamilton said. “We saw so much of that during COVID. Levels that honestly kind of helped us hang on to life itself.”
Apart from donating and volunteering, Hamilton said people can help meet the county’s need through acts of kindness on a local level.
“Sometimes the biggest help that is going to be provided isn’t a big donation to the food bank, but it might be recognizing a neighbor down the street that needs help and bringing them food,” he said. “Sometimes that done at scale, done in more spaces and more places, is part of the solution, as well.”
This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.