Your Own Backyard: Ballard Food Bank

            “Neighbors helping neighbors.” This is the motto at Ballard Food Bank. A motto proudly emblazoned on the building’s friendly blue facade, it is the first thought to greet you upon arrival. Here is a space for neighbors to gather, to offer whatever they can and glean whatever they need, to share food and stories – a place of community.

            One of the most interesting aspects of Ballard Food Bank is its grocery store model. Customers shop with carts in the spacious, high-ceilinged main room, as they might at any grocery store. Volunteers are on standby at every station to help with bagging, running items out to the floor, and fielding any questions that shoppers may have. It feels quite a bit less like “distribution,” and quite a bit more like a guided (and free) shopping experience.

            The food bank serves five zip codes in Ballard, Magnolia, and Queen Anne. Over 1,200 individuals come through in an average week. An estimated 11% of those folks are children, 32% are seniors, and 22% are experiencing homelessness.

            “I used to judge,” says Patty, a hardworking volunteer and food bank patron. “You know, seeing people drive up in a Mercedes Benz, and they’re going to the food bank. I would shake my head and think, these people don’t know anything about need.” Certainly, not all the customers at Ballard Food Bank – or any food bank, for that matter – appear outwardly “needy.” But the staff and volunteers make it a point to keep an open mind. Patty goes on, “These folks, they get to where they’re on social security, or that age, and they basically have to choose between paying their rent, or their mortgage, or gas – or food. You never know what somebody has faced before they walk in that door.” Richard, another seasoned volunteer, chimes in on the same note: “Many [food bank patrons] are just middle class families who have fallen on hard times. You know, the cost of housing has gone up so high people don’t have money to spend on food.”

            Patty and Richard remind us of something important. It is the job of places like Ballard Food Bank to make sure people aren’t sacrificing sustenance for the sake of a roof, or transportation, or what have you. The services offered here aren’t solely for people who have nothing. They’re for people who are hungry – and that could be anyone, at any time.

            Many patrons at the Ballard Food Bank comment regularly on the abundance and freshness of produce. According to Roy, one of the produce gurus, “three years ago, this time of year, the coolers would have been empty.” Nowadays, the warehouse is well stocked, and the produce bins (as well as bread, pastries, canned goods, condiments, and dairy) are refilled throughout the day. Depending on how much gets delivered by the grocery store trucks in the morning, Roy will update the limitations for various items on the produce board. Potatoes tend to stay in relative abundance – 20 or 25 will be written in green dry erase marker next to “potatoes.” Other items are more variable. Bananas – two or three bunches, depending. Kiwis – two. When more fruit rolls in over the summer, it may go as high as eight.

            Peggy Bailey, the Assistant Director of Ballard Food Bank, attributes the abundance of fresh goodies in part to the food bank’s partnerships with organizations like City Fruit. “With the local growing season upon us, we are always so thankful for the amazing work you guys do getting the fruit to the local food banks that would otherwise go to waste. Our clients look forward to spring every year and the availability of fresh local produce,” Peggy says. “It makes a huge difference.”

            The Ballard Food Bank also has a close relationship with Ballard P-Patch, the community garden about two miles up the road. A couple of spacious plots at the P-Patch are designated as the Giving Gardens – a team of volunteers comes together once a week to tend these plots, and glean seasonal produce for the Ballard Food Bank. (For more info on Giving Gardens, have a peek at the P-Patch website. Volunteers are welcome to join in anytime! The work usually happens for an hour or two on Tuesday evenings, followed by a potluck – and golly, these folks can cook.)

            Regular volunteers at the food bank have their go-to stations. Roy is produce chief number one, and his second in command is Vyn – a retired physician who volunteers every week.

           “Roy’s a real missionary for green gardening and eating,” says Vyn. He certainly is. Roy, who has been volunteering for about nine years, takes a special pride in the P-Patch Giving Gardens, and the small but vibrant garden in the parking lot of the food bank. These raised beds have already begun to yield delectable kale and mint, which gets bagged up and added to the produce, or placed in the volunteer kitchen.

           Roy gestures between a bag of freshly picked dino kale and a box of day-old grocery store donuts. “Which would you rather eat?” he demands. As if in answer to his own question, Roy selects a leaf and nibbles it happily.

           Health and nutrition are salient values for many of the volunteers and shoppers at Ballard Food Bank. Shaah, a regular patron, touts the virtues of home cooking.

           “I make my own pizza dough,” he informs the volunteers on a day when Trader Joe’s pizza dough is a “bonus item” (in other words, it needs to go, fast, and it’s the volunteers’ job to foist it on people). Shaah shakes his head at the packaged dough, offering instead a simple recipe: “Take a cup of water, a little packet of yeast, two cups of flour, and just let it rise. You can put a little teaspoon of honey in there if you like.”

           Shaah is concerned about high blood pressure, which disproportionately affects African American populations. For health reasons, he steers clear of pork, and enjoys using his own recipes rather than trusting processed food products. Like Roy with his greens, Shaah encourages others to follow this path: “We’re the consumers – and don’t nobody care about us but us.”

           Another customer, Sheila, who has been shopping at Ballard Food Bank for a long while, calls this place “the best food bank ever.” She is consistently impressed with the well-oiled machine. Perusing the produce section, adding to an already full sack of fresh goodies, Sheila comments: “a lot of these veggies and fruits I’ll freeze – I make shakes out of them. Like green smoothies. So I know it looks crazy, but I actually use all this, girl.”

            Sheila also enjoys knowing that some of the produce at the food bank comes from the garden just outside, and from Ballard P-Patch – “neighbors helping neighbors.” This value is clearly important to the food bank customers. As integral as the shelves of bread, and the ever delightful produce selection. Sheila goes on: “I work, but I don’t have any more food stamps. So, you know, just because I work doesn’t mean I can afford groceries. This really helps me out a lot.”

            As Roy and Vyn are the produce missionaries, another volunteer, Kelsey, is the Wednesday bread maven of Ballard Food Bank. Kelsey got connected with the food bank through her participation in Giving Gardens, and has been volunteering every week for about a year.  

            “One day, Johnny just asked me to do bread,” Kelsey says. Johnny Flores is the food bank Distribution Coordinator, and general go-to guy on the floor. “From there, it just became one of the things that I would regularly check on.”

            Kelsey Recalls the strangest thing she ever saw donated to the food bank – a story that has been immortalized amongst the volunteers: “It was a canning jar, filled some sort of gelatinous substance, and inside there was a small, preserved shark. With its head cut off.”

            Morgan, another volunteer from the P-Patch, was also present for the shark debacle. As Kelsey and some other lucky folks were marveling at the jar, scraping their jaws off the floor, so to speak, and trying to figure out what the headless fish could be, Morgan – whose mother is a marine biologist – chimed in, “Dude, that’s a shark!”           

           “I’m a little too proud of this place,” Morgan says of the food bank. He has been a volunteer since September, though his roots in the community dig much further down than that. He was born at Swedish Medical Center in Ballard, less than a quarter mile from the food bank.

            Morgan is a local photographer, musician and gardener extraordinaire. His dedication to both the P-Patch and the Food Bank has earned him the title of “Roy Junior” (though Morgan maintains he’s still working towards his “Roy degree”). Feeding people is one of Morgan’s greatest passions, and he approaches it with pragmatism – which is how he became a customer at Ballard Food Bank.

            “The food bank has roughly five to one leverage with their funds,” Morgan explains. (According to Food Lifeline, five nutritious meals can be provided from every $1 donation). “So I donate a significant portion of my food budget to the food bank, and then I shop here.” Certainly logical, from a “greatest good” standpoint, but wouldn’t somebody who loves food and the art of cooking find the constraints of shopping once a week at a food bank to be… well, maddening? Morgan shrugs off this notion. “I’m not above this food,” he states plainly. “And I don’t mean to sound arrogant here, but really, no one is.”

            Certainly no one would wish to be above Morgan’s banana chocolate walnut bread pudding – a dessert he lovingly bestowed on the Giving Gardens potluck crew, at their first gathering of the season. Considering that the bread shelves at the food bank tend to stay well stocked, sometimes to the point of overflowing, bread pudding may become a frequent flyer in Morgan’s baking repertoire. There aren’t likely to be any complaints.  

           “Neighbors helping neighbors.” This motto just about perfectly encapsulates the spirit of Ballard Food Bank. All are equal here – whether you’re a volunteer-turned-customer, or a customer-turned-volunteer, whether you drive a Mercedes or live in a tent, whether you enjoy kale, or pumpkin spice margarine, or tiny headless sharks in mysterious canning fluids. All are embraced in the Ballard Food Bank family, where neighbors help neighbors.