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Omicron empties shelves at Clark County food banks

Surge strains Clark County organizations as volunteers, donations drop off

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:
6 Photos
FISH of Vancouver Operations Manager Anina Estrem lends a hand at the organization's facility Tuesday morning as people  line up for food. The organization is running low on juice, yogurt, creamer, fresh produce and more. Volunteers are also in short supply. Local food banks are experiencing a shortage of volunteers and diminished food supply due to the recent surge in COVID-19 cases.
FISH of Vancouver Operations Manager Anina Estrem lends a hand at the organization's facility Tuesday morning as people line up for food. The organization is running low on juice, yogurt, creamer, fresh produce and more. Volunteers are also in short supply. Local food banks are experiencing a shortage of volunteers and diminished food supply due to the recent surge in COVID-19 cases. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Food banks in Clark County are experiencing a shortage of volunteers as the omicron variant of COVID-19 continues to spread widely throughout the community.

Regular volunteers are calling out sick at greater rates, and some are staying home to minimize contact with others until the surge abates. Additionally, supply chain issues are impacting food supply, and many food banks are having to make do with less.

Local food banks including the Clark County Food Bank and FISH of Vancouver have been grappling with these issues since the beginning of the pandemic. Through trial and error, they have learned how to deal with fewer volunteers and a diminished food supply, but the latest surge is still impacting operations.

Clark County Food Bank

Volunteers are a big part of the Clark County Food Bank. They assist with everything, including packaging and sorting food, cleaning facilities and making deliveries.

According to Aubrey Ka’ahanui, volunteer coordinator at the Clark County Food Bank, the number of volunteers at the organization ebbs and flows as COVID-19 cases rise and fall. During this latest surge, however, many new volunteers have joined to help at a time of great need.

“The loss has been made up in part with many, many new volunteers,” said Clark County Food Bank president Alan Hamilton. “The supply chain of people, so to speak, is still pretty strong.”

Thanks to community donations, the organization hasn’t experienced a dramatic decrease in food due to supply chain issues. In fact, community donations have allowed the organization to function at full capacity throughout the pandemic, even during this latest surge.

“When the need arises, we’re going to get help from individuals, families, schools, institutional business donors and foundations locally,” Hamilton said. “It’s been overwhelming in many ways, because there’s been such generosity. Likewise, we’ve had maybe more food donated than we’ve had in the past, even though it’s harder for many people to donate it.”

There is still a need for more volunteers, however, especially for afternoon shifts where volunteers help with sorting and boxing donations. For example, thousands of pounds of food donated during the Walk & Knock food drive in December still needs to get sorted so it can be distributed.

TO HELP: People interested in donating or volunteering can learn more at clarkcountyfoodbank.org.

FISH of Vancouver

FISH Westside Food Pantry of Vancouver is experiencing both a volunteer shortage and a diminished food supply.

“We are getting less food donated from the grocery stores,” said FISH of Vancouver Executive Director James Fitzgerald. “I believe this is because they have less inventory and less surplus foods.”

He said that fresh and frozen food donations are also down, leading to less variety for clients. Despite the reduced supply, the organization is still providing as much food as possible.

“We are looking into purchasing more food to keep up with demand, but there are challenges there, too, including the additional expense,” Fitzgerald said.

The organization has been short on volunteers since the beginning of the pandemic.

“We are still short on volunteers on a daily basis,” Fitzgerald said. “We had been slowly building back our team as people feel comfortable coming back, but the omicron variant has certainly curtailed that a bit.”

The organization needs three to five volunteers per day, which is proving difficult to achieve.

“We always find a way to make it work with less people, but ultimately we need more to be efficient and sustainable,” Fitzgerald said.

According to Fitzgerald, people interested in donating food can drop off shelf-stable proteins, fruits and vegetables at the organization’s facility at 906 Harney St. in Vancouver on weekdays between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.

TO HELP: Financial donations are also needed. Those interested in donating to or volunteering for the organization can learn more at fishvancouver.org.

Meals on Wheels People

While not a food bank, Meals on Wheels People in Clark County is also experiencing challenges due to the omicron surge. Staffing is its biggest challenge.

“Each week, we receive calls from staff who are out either because they are sick or are isolating because they came in contact with someone who had COVID,” said Meals on Wheels People Executive Director Suzanne Washington.

The Diner Vancouver, the restaurant run by the organization at 5303 E. Mill Plain Blvd., had to close for about a week in January due to staffing shortages, Washington said.

“It’s difficult to hire on-call employees to cover for all the staff who are out due to the training needed,” she said. “With that said, we are hanging in there and hopeful things will get back on track soon.”

Supply chain issues and inflation have also impacted the organization.

“Along with delays in deliveries, we’ve had to be flexible in order to purchase quality food,” Washington said. “With the cost of food doubling, tripling in some cases, our need to fundraise only increases.”

To accommodate its clients with fewer volunteers, the organization has had to make some changes.

“During the pandemic, we adjusted our daily food delivery to once a week delivering larger quantities of food to homebound older adults,” Washington said. “This has allowed us to maintain our current volunteer drivers while ensuring each of our clients has enough food each week.”

Currently, volunteers are needed for the organization’s Friendly Chats program, where volunteers call Meals on Wheels People clients to talk.

TO HELP: To volunteer or donate to Meals on Wheels People, visit www.mowp.org/volunteer/.

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