EVERETT — On Tuesday, the mood inside the dining room at Bethany of the Northwest was bright like the sunny spring day outside as nine women filled small Ziploc bags with food. The floor was soon littered with dried beans, pasta and brown rice.
These women live in the long-term care and rehab units at Bethany’s location on Pacific Avenue in Everett. A few times per month they volunteer for the Faith Food Bank, in their own dining room, by repackaging bulk items into smaller bags for the weekly box distribution.
Ellen Douglas, 95, volunteers because she remembers what it was like to need that help many years ago, in Everett, with her two sons. And she sees the need around her.
“More people seem to be hungry, there is more need for help,” Douglas said. “They’re in the same boat as I was years ago.” Douglas had to stop early on Tuesday, as she had just returned that day from a week in the hospital.
Nearly one-third of Snohomish County residents are experiencing “very low food security,” according to a recent food security survey conducted jointly by the University of Washington and Washington State University. The researchers describe very low food security as “reports of multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.”
Teresa Quinlan, activities director at the Bethany facility, drives about 3 miles south to the food bank, picks up bulk items like dried beans, diapers and dog food. Then residents get to work repackaging them into smaller bundles. Quinlan reloads her car and returns to the food bank.
Quinlan noticed a few years ago a sense of hopelessness, as folks watched and read bad news day after day. They asked: “What can we do?”
So they got to work brainstorming a number of ideas to give back to their community. They sold their handmade art to raise money for a shelter, and they put together packets of supplies for unhoused neighbors. This Easter, the residents volunteered with the food bank for the first time, stuffing over 600 plastic eggs with candy to be distributed with the weekly boxes.
When asked if the group has a name for themselves, they quickly joked about “senior stuffers,” but later decided that they might need to vote between that and “bag ladies.” They can’t all fill and seal a bag independently because of mobility limitations, so some work in pairs or get help from staff.
“The residents of Bethany are very important to our program. If they didn’t bag this stuff up, most of the food they bag wouldn’t be available.” she said.
Boroujerdi said the food bank serves about 1,000 people weekly with the drive-up box distribution on Fridays, plus another 150 on Tuesdays who receive a plated dinner-to-go.
The word has gotten out that the food bank has some senior-specific items, like Ensure nutritional supplements, senior vitamins and incontinent wear (products like Depends). Boroujerdi guessed that seniors make up about half of the folks who pick up meals, and about 25% of the folks who pick up food boxes. And seniors are a large share of the volunteers at the food bank.
Similarly, seniors themselves volunteer and participate in Meals on Wheels and the Community Table program at Homage, a Lynnwood-based nonprofit that provides services to seniors and people with disabilities.
Statewide, 15% of people age 65 to 74 and 11% of those 75 and older experience very low food security, according to the food security study.
Through the Community Table program, Homage provides free, warm meals for adults age 60 and up at community centers across the county, from Lynnwood to Darrington. Certain sites cater to immigrant communities on specific days of the week, serving food and offering tailored support for Chinese, Filipino, Hispanic, Korean, Slavic and Vietnamese seniors.
On Thursdays, about 65 members of the Korean American community gather at Homage’s building in Lynnwood for lunch. Dae Koo, 75, has come every week for about seven years. He helps to plan activities, like bingo, and set up the complicated karaoke machine. He loves to sing too.
“As I’m getting older, I need more chance to socialize with others, have fun here, and help others who need it. Coming here is good for my health too,” Koo said through an interpreter.
Homage bought the lunch from Gangnam restaurant in Lynnwood: rice, kimchi, spicy Korean chicken stew and pan-fried zucchini.
Leah Hammon, director of nutrition and Center for Healthy Living at Homage, said the number of meals served rose by nearly 50% from 2019 to 2022, ending at about 430,000. That includes about 136,000 community meals. The 294,000 Meals on Wheels go to homebound seniors who receive seven meals in one weekly delivery, and some socialization with regular volunteer drivers, many of whom are retirees.
“We often hear that Meals on Wheels is a lifesaver” from clients and their family members, Hammon said. As for the Community Table program, she said they’ve seen a lot of new faces recently, likely from both the financial challenges of inflation as well as the social isolation coming out of the pandemic.
But like other organizations providing food for those in need, Homage is facing much more expensive food and fuel prices, coupled with rising demand for food and the loss of pandemic emergency funding. They rely on donations from individuals and corporations to fill in gaps from government funding. A $9 donation covers one meal.
Jae Kim, 75, has been coming to the Thursday meal for about 10 months, after hearing about it from a friend. He plays his saxophone for the crowd monthly.
“This is very good time for me,” he said. “The people wait all week to come.”
Snohomish County nutrition programs: snohomishcountywa.gov/1002/Nutrition-Programs
Faith Food Bank, Everett: facebook.com/faithfoodbank
Joy Borkholder is the health and wellness reporter for The Daily Herald. Her work is supported by the Health Reporting Initiative, which is sponsored in part by Premera Blue Cross. The Daily Herald maintains editorial control over content produced through this initiative.
Joy Borkholder: 425-339-3430; [email protected]; Twitter: @jlbinvestigates.