W hen Deanne Ramsey’s family hit financial hard times unexpectedly last year, she visited the Maple Valley Food Bank for the first time as a customer.
“I was in shock thinking OK, what are we going to do? And I was so thankful that that resource was there in our community,” she says. “We had always dropped off food, so to go in there and go through the process, I was crying the entire time.”
Ramsey’s family of three set a goal to give back, and now she is helping to lead a joint effort among three Maple Valley neighborhoods to gather a ton of food — 2,000 pounds — for the food bank over the next three weeks.
The neighborhoods have chosen a good time of year to hold a food drive because donations drop off dramatically after the holidays, says Lila Henderson, executive director of the Maple Valley Food Bank.
“During the holidays, we don’t sit down … but we’ll be lucky to get two donations today,” Henderson said this morning.
Food drives are important because the Maple Valley Food Bank must purchase any items not donated through drives or through government commodity programs. In the last fiscal year, the food bank collected about $888,000 worth of donated food and took in less than half that much — about $390,000 — in monetary donations and grants.
Not only are donations scarce this time of year, but the recession has put additional stress on food banks. Henderson says that three years ago, traffic increased 50 percent.
“We thought we were busy prior to that, so it was quite a shock to our system,” Henderson says. The number of customers then inched up and has stayed steady ever since.
“I think the layoffs and the things that have happened in our economy have humbled a few people and they realize neighbors are coming in, people you never would assume would come to a food bank,” Henderson says.
An average of 100 households a day from greater Maple Valley plus Black Diamond and Covington visit the Maple Valley Food Bank for groceries. Most are only permitted to take food once a month, but large families can come twice.
“We very rarely turn people down; they don’t ask unless they are desperate,” she says.
Henderson says she has seen almost no examples of people cheating the system. The vast majority of customers take only what they need — or less. “Seniors are particularly good. They’re frugal.”
The food bank, which is located along state Route 169 just north of the Maple Valley Market, offers the typical canned goods, dry boxed pasta and peanut butter that are so often donated, but it also purchases fresh milk, eggs and sometimes meat for customers. Six area grocery stores donate meat, baked goods and produce. Unusable produce is picked up daily by a local pig farmer so that nothing is wasted.
Items in highest demand are crucial non-food products not covered by food stamps, including diapers, toilet paper, toothpaste and soap. The most useful food items to donate are “stick to your ribs”-type products such as peanut butter, hearty soups and stews, tuna, beans and brown rice, Henderson says.
In recent years, the food bank has tried to focus on whole food and whole grains, even bringing in a Washington State University extension agent to provide recipes.
“A lot of people don’t know how to use [whole foods], but we’re teaching them,” she says.
The food bank also runs a “Grow a Row” program encouraging families to plant food each spring and donate it after it’s picked.
“Parents want to get their kids involved, and I think [Grow a Row] is really hands on,” Henderson says. “It used to be we’d only get squash; now we’re getting all sorts of beautiful produce from our community.”
And the food bank, which is officially called the Maple Valley Food Bank and Emergency Services, provides more than food. Either on site or through referrals, it helps needy families pay utility bills, buy school supplies, sign up for food stamps, purchase holiday gifts for children, and find housing, among other programs.
“We’re kind of like that stopgap,” Henderson says. “You come in for food, but there are lots of other things going on, so let’s connect those dots.”
The neighborhoods involved in the food drive are Maple Woods, Maple Ridge Highlands, and the Arbors — with a total of 635 homes located across state Route 169 from Glacier Park Elementary. They are calling their drive the “Ton O’ Fun Food Drive.” Thrive Fitness is hosting a kickoff party at 2 p.m. Saturday for volunteers.
The drive will work like the popular “boo grams” at Halloween, with a home receiving door hangers and plastic bags, which that household will be asked to pass on to two others.
If 60 percent of residents participate, the drive should be able to reach its goal a ton of food, says Tom Hicks of Maple Ridge Highlands. To encourage certain items, Hicks has devised an equivalency chart. For example, a package of diapers will be counted as equaling the weight of 15 cans. Donations will be collected door-to-door and at a central playground for three Saturdays until March 10.
Ramsey says its wrong to try to profile the types of people who might need to use the food bank.
The day Ramsey visited “there were a couple of elderly ladies who showed up and they had dressed up and done their hair to go to the food bank. … I was just humbled and inspired.”