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News / Clark County News

Clark County Veterans Assistance Center food program confronts challenges

Nonprofit copes with high prices, tight space

By Carlos Fuentes, Columbian staff writer
Published: February 3, 2023, 6:03am
3 Photos
Clark County Veterans Assistance Center Vice President Ruth Lakel holds a box of food at the center. The organization operates a food pantry that gives out boxes to individuals and families.
Clark County Veterans Assistance Center Vice President Ruth Lakel holds a box of food at the center. The organization operates a food pantry that gives out boxes to individuals and families. (Taylor Balkom/ The Columbian) Photo Gallery

While food prices across the country soar, many food banks and pantries are struggling to supply enough meals to those seeking warm food and supplies.

The Clark County Veterans Assistance Center is no exception, with workers struggling to keep the one-room food pantry for veterans amply stocked.

“We’re just like everybody else; the price of groceries is killing us,” said Ruth Lakel, the nonprofit center’s vice president and volunteer coordinator. “And it’s harder for people to donate when things are so expensive.”

Though rising costs are a main concern for the center, inflation is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the challenges of keeping the food program running effectively.

A primary constraint for the food pantry: space. The assistance center, open Monday through Friday at its downtown Vancouver location, also provides supplies such as sleeping bags and backpacks to struggling veterans, along with social services and financial support.

All of the center’s clothes, supplies and food are stored in a single room, with sleeping bags and large jackets stacked feet away from boxes of canned goods and a small supply of produce.

“We’re limited right now by storage. I mean, this is it,” Lakel said during an interview, gesturing around the overfilled food pantry.

“We don’t have a lot of room,” Lakel continued. “We have to keep our food and our clothes in the same room, because this is a pretty small building. If we had more room, we could expand a lot of our programs.”

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The nonprofit works with the Sunshine Division, a Portland food bank, to create monthly food boxes for veterans and their families.

Each month, Sunshine Division sends over boxes of basic groceries, which Lakel and her team of volunteers supplement with the pantry’s supplies before distribution. According to Lakel, these food boxes have dwindled in size as a result of rising grocery costs.

“We try to put them together a little more thoughtfully with items that we’ve either purchased or have been donated,” she said. “And because of the current situation with the high price of groceries, the food boxes we get have been a little less robust, so our need to add more food to them has become greater and therefore we’re spending more of our money.”

Along with less space, Lakel said that the center has seen fewer volunteers in recent months, which are crucial in operating the food box-making process and lunch program.

During the week, workers at the center hand out daily breakfast and lunches to any veterans who stop by. However, they no longer serve hot lunches due to a lack of volunteers to help prepare and serve the food, an issue exacerbated by the lack of a kitchen at the center. A previous volunteer cooked meals at her home and brought them to the center to reheat and serve, Lakel said.

“It was a little bit primitive, but at least it was a warm meal,” she said. “And occasionally we did that for a specialty, like Christmas or Thanksgiving, we did a hot lunch, just to give them something a little bit different besides a ham sandwich.”

Seeking funds

Prior to the pandemic, the center’s food programs were entirely donation-based. With the cancellation of in-person fundraisers in the last three years, the staff began applying for more government grants, which has allowed the pantry to remain open.

“We are always looking for money wherever we can get it,” Lakel said. “And it seems like especially with the Southwest Washington Community Foundation, once they started working with us, we’ve gotten more grants. There’s money out there, you just have to know how to get it.”

Another difficulty, according to Lakel, is that the food pantry does not receive supplies from other area food banks. This is due to the assistance center being fully confidential, meaning it will not give requested or required personal information to other food banks.

“We’ve met with them a couple times; it’s always kind of fallen off,” said Emily Straw, director of food programs at Clark County Food Bank. “There is an application process for us to become an official partner, and that’s kind of where we have gotten jammed up a couple times.”

Despite the challenges in keeping the food aid programs running, Lakel says she is grateful for the community that she lives in for being so supportive of their veteran population.

“This community is extremely supportive of our efforts here,” she said. “Sometimes, people will just walk up to the door and hand us $100 and say, ‘here, use this for food.’ It’s pretty amazing, the different people that come through here all the time.”

Columbian staff writer