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Navigating Food Security: Vashon and Orcas Island Food Bank Leaders Talk Challenges, Changing the Narrative + Shifting Paradigms.

At Ostara, we’ve been thinking a lot about food security organizations recently. We’ve worked with numerous organizations in the sector over the years and have been talking internally about the challenges these organizations are facing, in the wake of rising costs and inflation, and post-pandemic. We decided to start talking with the leaders of these organizations to get a sense of where everybody is at now: what are the challenges, where are the opportunities, how can their organizations – and especially the smaller food banks – help support each other and band together?


To begin these conversations, we hosted a dinner for leaders of current food security clients and some of those we’d worked with in the past. That conversation was rich with stories, connection and a desire to seek solutions to shared challenges. We wanted to continue to explore this thread with two leaders of food banks in island communities – Emily Scott, Executive Director of Vashon Maury Community Food Bank, and Amanda Sparks, Executive Director of Orcas Island Food Bank - to understand the unique challenges they face compared to their counterparts on the mainland, and discuss where the greatest opportunities are for them to grow their impact.  

 

Morgan: To get a sense of size and scale, what are your operating budgets and what percentage of the population on your respective islands do you serve?

 

Amanda: Our budget is now just over $1 million, up from around $70,000 before the pandemic. This increase reflects the rising need in our community. According to the 2023 census, Orcas Island has a population of approximately 6,078 people, with 53% qualifying for food assistance. Currently, we are serving 35% of this qualifying population, meaning 65% are not yet accessing our services. To better meet these needs, we are planning for a new facility. We had already outgrown our capacity pre-pandemic, making our current service delivery extremely challenging.


Emily: Wow, that’s a staggering number, 53%. Our operating budget’s at about $700K right now and that's not including capital revenues or expenses. We serve about 15-20% of Vashon’s population. Right now, we’re serving more people than ever – up about 25% over this time last year even.

 

Morgan: As leaders of food banks in island communities, what challenges do you face that may be different than those faced by food banks on the mainland? 

 

Emily: I’d make some assumptions Amanda that you probably deal with many of the same logistical issues we do on Vashon, but probably to an even greater degree because of your distance to populated areas. On Vashon, we send a truck off island 1-3x a week to get food from Food Lifeline and Northwest Harvest - though we'll be getting cut out of the Northwest Harvest network at the end of this year because they’ve narrowed their partner network. 

 

Amanda: Distribution challenges are one of our greatest hurdles. Like Vashon, we don't have easy access to distribution like organizations on the mainland do. Additionally, the high cost prohibits many companies from distributing here altogether. Often, the cost of shipping is not the best use of our dollars. To ensure the best stewardship of our funds and maintain freshness, we stick to established island distributors, including local growers. If something doesn’t make it on the truck or the ferries are canceled, which happens frequently, we go without that week. For this reason, having a sizable inventory on-hand is crucial, especially during crises like the pandemic. Being an hour and a half offshore makes us an extremely vulnerable population, especially regarding our food supply.

 

Morgan: Given that, how have you gotten creative with your shipping and distribution practices?

 

Amanda: Currently, our commodity food allocation from the state is being shipped to the island thanks to limited-time grant funding from the WSDA through our contractor in Skagit County. This eliminates the need for our staff to spend a full day off-island, which is a significant expense. Our other major food donor, Food Lifeline from Seattle, committed to delivering to us starting in 2020. In exchange, we act as a redistribution site for Food Lifeline orders for Lopez Island.

 

Also, our local grocery stores place orders with their distributor on our behalf, and we rely on local growers as often as possible. We also have purchasing agreements with two vendors who sell directly to us, which is preferred as they deliver, eliminating the need to pick up orders from the stores.

 

During the pandemic, we developed the habit of pallet stashing—bringing in large volumes of food and distributing it gradually to ensure consistency. However, this requires additional storage, both cold and dry. This is why we are soon embarking on a capital campaign for a new facility as part of a social service co-campus which also includes a community resource center and low-income housing. A new building will enable us to properly serve the population we currently feed each week, while also positioning us to meet future needs and maintain supplies for emergencies such as earthquakes or major distribution challenges. At present, we operate out of shipping containers, Cool-bots (refrigerated boxes), and rented freezer space and it’s simply not sufficient.

 

Morgan: Emily, you mentioned losing access to Northwest Harvest’s distribution. Can you elaborate a bit on that, and the impacts it has on your ability to serve your community?

 

Emily: Northwest Harvest has made a strategic decision to cut certain food banks out of their network and, we, unfortunately, are one of them. Historically, we’ve received about 10% of our free food from Northwest Harvest. The removal of this food source is putting us in a hard position to serve our community, who are mostly multi-generational islanders who constitute the cultural core of the island; lots of artists and service workers.


Much of the reason that people from off island find Vashon charming and appealing is because of the people who have been the cultural thread of the island for years, and who have lived there for generations. Those folks are having a really hard time maintaining their livelihoods on the island because of rising housing and food costs, and inflation. Amanda, is that similar on Orcas?


Amanda: It’s a similar situation. It’s tough to prioritize one community’s needs over another. But at the end of the day, I always stand up for our population. Food is a fundamental human right, and figuring out how to distribute resources fairly is a challenge. It’s not easy to say who needs it more; it's hard to figure out how to divide a loaf of bread.

 

In 2020, we expanded our outreach beyond our local area to understand what resources were available. With support from advocates like WSDA, Northwest Harvest, and Food Lifeline, we secured grant funding and additional resources that brought much-needed stability to our operations. Now, we’re facing a sharp decline in those resources, which is really tough to see. We're currently figuring out how to prepare for this new reality. 

 

As I mentioned, just over 50% of Orcas Island's population qualifies for food assistance. This includes essential workers on the island like UPS drivers, grocery store clerks, baristas, and school staff—people who play critical roles in keeping our community running smoothly. Given the current situation, there's also the looming concern of losing our workforce.

 

Morgan: Are there suggestions or ideas you hear consistently from your community or those outside of the work to improve the problem that you’ve thought about but know are ultimately not the right solution?


Emily: There's a pretty active gardening and farming community on Vashon, and a lot of people vocalize the notion that we should close the loop on Vashon's economy and grow all the food we need here. But there’s the elephant in the room that Vashon does not have the tillable, fertile soil, and the volume of land it would take to feed all the people on the island, not to mention to be able to do so in a sustaining way.


Amanda: Yeah, the utopian dream is to grow all our own food, but the reality is that it’s not feasible for the reasons Emily mentioned. I really love the idea, though. In 2020, we explored various possibilities, and that was definitely one of them.

 

On Orcas, we seemingly live in a land of plenty, but based on the need, it's actually a food desert. Our farmers will never be able to grow enough food for the population, and our food bank will never have sufficient access to food without shipping it in, unfortunately.

 

Emily: Exactly. Even the grocery stores locally get their produce from Charlie's, just like we do. People are like, why don't we just cut ourselves off from the mainland? But the reality is that we can’t survive without a mainline to the mainland. You know what I mean?


Amanda: It’s just not realistic.

 

Emily: I was on the board of the Vashon Island Growers Association for a handful of years, and we at one point did a feasibility study in partnership with another organization around forming a proper Food Hub, where small growers basically aggregate their product to be able to sell wholesale to institutions like schools or the food bank. The result of that study was that there was neither the interest, nor the capacity; it’s an economy of scale issue. 

 

Amanda: In 2020, we too explored how our food bank might support our local Food Hub by providing capacity, but it fell short. Most of our farmers cannot grow enough food and lack confidence in the consistency of their crops to justify the cost of joining the Food Hub and meeting its expectations. Fortunately, we received grant funding that allows us to purchase farmed foods, but we always need to supplement with Charlie’s or other produce distributors.


Morgan: I'm curious, what kind of awareness, communications, marketing, messaging are you doing around food security issues on your respective islands and what do you see working? And what kind of engagement do you all have from your communities in terms of supporting your efforts, volunteering, etc?


Emily: We're really trying to lean into knowing that the funding landscape is changing and that it’s incumbent upon us to reframe the idea of what a food bank is. We need to remind people that the culture of the island is everyone’s responsibility and that those who have the means are also a part of this community. That it’s going to take community investment because we're losing the outside investment. We are also hoping our capital campaign will be a way to inspire general operating dollars.

 

Being a small nonprofit, we haven't had a proper major donor program in the past. We don't have any major gift officers or staff whose job it is to make x number of phone calls to major donors per week.


We need those WSDA dollars (that are also shrinking) and would like to be able to still pick up that Northwest Harvest product, but if resources need to get reallocated to places of intense need, I'm never going to advocate against that. So, then it's our responsibility to remind our local donors and folks who have never given to the food bank that the landscape is changing, and we need to rely on them more now for support. And that, you know, this is an asset that’s foundational to their community.


On Vashon, we don't have a municipal government. We're part of unincorporated King County, so there's no local B&O tax and there are levies for services like the fire department and the library. That’s a good reminder that we live in this kind of rural, remote area and we’re independent; we rely on ourselves and we're a tight-knit community. But that also means as a community we need to invest in the social safety net. I don’t know – we’re in it and it’s a challenge. We don’t want to guilt or morally shame anyone into giving money, so we are working on reframing it as an opportunity to strengthen the foundation of our community.


Morgan: Amanda, I'm curious to hear your perspective on that, because I know Orcas is a landing spot for many people who have homes in the city and second homes on the island. How do you engage those families who aren’t full time residents of your community?

 

Amanda: I want to echo Emily's point. Regarding your question, we've found that a data-driven narrative holds significant power. In 2020, we leaned into this approach by developing systems to collect extensive data, which we then translated into narratives that resonated uniquely with everyone in the community. Data is hard to argue with and certainly more challenging to ignore than testimony alone.

 

However, I try not to rely too heavily on standard practices because what worked yesterday might not work today. We’re constantly asking ourselves, “What’s the message now? How do we reach people? What are the giving trends?” One effective strategy has been emphasizing the broader community benefits of our resources, not just for those who access the food bank, but also for those who don't. For example, if we don’t support our workforce with food assistance, you don't have a workforce. That means you don’t have the luxuries and amenities you need and want on the island – mail services, coffee shops, restaurants, et cetera. Highlighting how our services touch everyone personally is more impactful because it bridges the gap people often create with social services. Instead of thinking, "Oh, that's somebody else's problem," we help them see how these resources benefit the entire community, increasing the likelihood of their engagement.


Also, because we're such a small island community, neighbors know each other on a more intimate level. When you're volunteering at the food bank or taking a tour and you see your neighbor come in to get food, it creates a powerful, personal connection. It's about connecting the dots on a real, personal level for people, making the impact of our work more tangible and relatable.

 

We are seeing a generation of people aging and no longer able to farm their own land. Their resources are dwindling, and they must rely on others for help. Convincing elders to accept free food can be a challenging conversation. Many of these individuals worked multiple jobs their entire lives just to make ends meet and struggle to understand why they need assistance now. Some even feel unworthy of the support.


Morgan: And that’s a huge part of the work, right? Dismantling the shame associated with needing these services. 


Amanda: Shame is the biggest barrier, along with the false belief that "someone else needs it more."


Emily: Yeah, we talk about that all the time, too. You know, on Vashon, and I forget the statistics exactly but a majority of the population is over 65. And people who live on islands are likely to identify as independently resourceful, like, “I built my house, I have a lumber mill in my backyard” kind of thing. So, for them, needing this resource can certainly raise issues of shame. 


On top of that, our current food bank is in a dismal state of disrepair. It's like old military buildings that are falling apart and everything about a functional space that should be clean and welcoming and dignified, we just do not have that right now.


So, there are a ton of independent, resourceful seniors on fixed income on Vashon who probably don't use the food bank because of that internal notion of what our building is for and how that feels for them if they have to use it; that old stigma of “that’s for other people, that’s for poor people, that’s not for me.”


Morgan: I assume that state of disrepair is a key driver for the launch your capital campaign, Emily. Am I right?


Emily: Definitely. If we can create a welcoming, inclusive and dare I say, aesthetically pleasing place, I believe we’ll reach and be able to serve more of the population. I can just imagine this self-respecting senior who's living in their own house by themselves on a fixed income and goes to the grocery store and spends $150.00 for a weeks’ worth of groceries and doesn’t even know the food bank is accessible to them. 

 

Amanda: I can tell you for certain that creating a welcoming atmosphere has helped encourage people to use our food bank. It’s real. We turned ours into a charming self-select shopping model with a grocery store and it elevated the whole experience, and it does attract more people. But our facilities are just, they're working against us.


Emily: Exactly. For us, the facility itself is a barrier to service. The distance - you have to drive a quarter mile off the highway into a gravel, potholed parking lot. And then you get to the space and there’s nothing dignified or welcoming about it. I think the best way we’ve found thus far to encourage prospective campaign donors to consider a gift is to give them a tour of our current facility. It certainly tells the story for us.


Morgan: Amanda, is your campaign driven primarily by storage space or are there other dreams and aspirations you have that are also driving it? 

 

Amanda: Well, it’s everything, right? The space, especially storage space, is lacking, which is definitely an understatement. We need safe and adequate storage space for inventory and distribution. Additionally, a commercial kitchen will allow us to utilize more donated items, such as blemished produce or bulk-sized items, by turning them into meals instead of animal feed or compost. Honestly, all food banks serving large volumes should have a commercial kitchen for this purpose. Many of our households are often better served by prepared meals rather than raw ingredients. When we prepare the food ourselves, we can ensure it's more nutritious, without preservatives, added sugars, sodium, and all the other unhealthy additives commonly found in food these days.

 

We aim to someday make medically tailored meals and provide food education classes to further promote the "food is medicine" movement, as well as curate a native food forest and edible landscape to use as a teaching garden. We want to have an outdoor pizza oven for community potlucks to inspire the tradition of sharing hot meals with neighbors.


Emily: Offering hot food is an inroad to other services whether it's groceries or the community resource hub model which we’re leaning into for our new facility; the idea of partnering with other social service agencies. If you can draw somebody in with a hot meal, there’s a stronger likelihood of them walking away with two bags of free groceries and signing up for, say, SNAP benefits. It’s like a gateway for social services if you can offer somebody a delicious warm meal and then give them access to resources they didn't know they needed, were too ashamed to pursue, or couldn’t figure out how to access.


Morgan: If you could communicate something externally to the nonprofit community, to other leaders in the sector, to your communities, what would you ask people to consider or think about? What would you want to share?


Amanda: Social service needs are not decreasing; in fact, they're growing in demand. It's important to recognize this reality and for people to consider how they can contribute—whether as a distributor, donor, or volunteer. Where do you see yourself fitting into this picture? We’re a community, we’re all connected. One hand holds another. Community benefits by people leaning in, not leaning away and ignoring.


Emily: We kind of talked about the line between the “haves” and the “have nots” or the people who perceive themselves as not the kind of person who needs a social service like the food bank. That line is not only thin, but also imaginary. We don't demand people tell us their stories, but so much of the time they choose to, like, here’s what happened to me and why I ended up here. There are so many life circumstances that can change and leave people in a position to need a food bank.  Food is a basic need so there’s not a choice; you have to eat; your family has to eat.  

 

The name food bank can be unfortunate because people associate it with using a resource to be embarrassed about. We are really trying to reframe it like an actual bank: you pay in to be able to take out when you need it. That reframe can change someone’s feelings about using this resource.  As Amanda was saying, this is a resource for the entire community, whether you need it right now or whether you might need it in the future, or whether you'll never need it, but your neighbor does. Really framing it as a shame-free, inclusive, collective resource as opposed to shame driven welfare will continue to have huge benefits.


Amanda: There's a success story here as well: transforming our food banks into welcoming grocery store models where people can "see themselves on our shelves," choosing foods they desire independently. This approach fosters dignity, unlike traditional models. The products offered are of high quality, culturally recognized, and nutritious.

 

When I see people, especially kids, come in and respond joyfully to using the resource for the first time, it's a complete departure from my own childhood experience of visiting a food bank. Back then, the experience was fraught with stress, disappointment, and guilt. The food we received didn't align with our family's dietary habits, and it deterred us from returning, impacting us in other ways.

 

That all said, there are moments when I still feel our organization struggles as a resource. We're evolving as rapidly as possible, but being a small nonprofit with limited resources, there's only so much we can achieve with what's available. However, it's remarkable to see how far we've come in the last four years.

 

The emotional and mental health improvements we're witnessing, both visually and through customer testimonials, are palpable. I wish we could find a way to tangibly track health outcomes. Having measurable data on how our new model is improving the physical and mental health of our customers over time would be incredibly valuable.


Emily:  We absolutely will have long term intergenerational impacts. There is a paradigm shift happening in food banks. We're not doing anything revolutionary. We’re keeping up with best practices and this paradigm shift that's happening, broadly speaking, is us moving away from the poverty and welfare model and more towards abundance and resourcefulness because the food is there. It's just a matter of redistributing wealth.

 

Amanda: We are changing the wheel on generational poor nutrition and shame, and that is something that we can all be proud of.

 

 

 

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