Your Own Backyard: Pike Market Food Bank

Photo: Pike Market Food Bank, captured by Lance Wagner Photography

          You would be very hard pressed to find a Seattleite, or a tourist in the Emerald City, who has not had the pleasure of visiting Pike Place Market. The attraction boasts live music from talented buskers, local flavor, from piroshkies to farm fresh produce, the original Starbucks, the throwing of the fish, and the emblematic bronze cast piggy bank — Rachel. If you happen to notice a signpost on the lower level, around the corner from the bathrooms, you may learn that Pike Place is also the pulsing heart of a well-established community. A network of public housing and social services exists above and below the main thoroughfare, out of plain view. “The Market is home to more than 300 residents, many of whom are low-income. Look up — many of the apartments are above the buildings that line Pike Place.” You may also learn that Rachel the piggy bank is a source of funding for social services in and around the market. One of these is the Pike Market Food Bank.

            The food bank is not easy to find (even for an eager volunteer who was given quite clear directions). Between the two jam stands in the Main Arcade, a door leads to a skybridge, which leads to an elevator. The button for Floor 5 (just below “M” for Market), is helpfully marked “Food Bank.” It’s a familiar route for about 400 people who come through on distribution days — Tuesdays and Thursdays — to get their groceries.

            The bustling market upstairs provides the main font of produce and bread for the food bank. Gleaning from the market is a job for Peter, the assistant manager — a burly man, usually clad in pajama pants, with hoop earrings and a dolphin tattoo above his right ear. Peter, whose full name is John Peter Petrovich (picked a peck of pickled peppers… no? Okay.) has lived in Seattle for two and a half years, and worked with the food bank for that entire span. His relationship with Pike Market Food Bank began as court-assigned community service — “I was a bit of a troublemaker back then,” Peter remarks. Clearly, the spirit of giving grew quickly on Peter. Today, it’s tough to envision the food bank operating without him.

            “Hello, Peter,” rings forth from vendor stalls as the market gleaners — Peter and any volunteers who happen to be handy — make their rounds. Equipped with a couple of push carts, a dolly, and several cardboard boxes, the gleaners visit select vendors who hand off unsellable produce, or gigantic bags of day-old bread. Starbucks (the original Starbucks, no less) furnishes bags of coffee. Beecher’s, the famed artisinal cheese shop, donates cartons of mac and cheese that will be eagerly requested by many of the food bank’s patrons. Le Panier, a popular french bakery, provides bread and pastries. As Peter explains to the gleaning crew, one box of pastries must be set aside for Lina, a friendly Filipina lady who runs a produce stall in the Main Arcade. “She does us really good, every single morning with produce,” Peter says. “And she likes Le Panier pastries, so…” a neighborly trade takes place.

            Fresh produce is one of the things in shortest supply at the food bank — and one of the things that people value the most, according to Makayla Esposito, the food bank Volunteer Coordinator (a Washington Service Corps appointee). “Definitely produce,” Makayla answers quickly, when questioned about what tends to run out. Day-old bread and sweets stay in relative abundance, and the food bank fills in some cracks by purchasing staple items like eggs and dairy. Produce, however, is more difficult to keep around, because of its relatively short optimal shelf life. (When the harvest comes along, City Fruit and other local farmers will help keep the produce bins full!)

            Much like City Fruit, Pike Market Food Bank is in the midst of a managerial transition. Brian Anderson, who was the food bank manager for about three and a half years, had his last day on Monday, April 3rd.

          “Okay, everybody. Put on a smile, and get ready to give people food,” Brian declares during his morning pep talk. In his years as manager of the Pike Market Food Bank, Brian has gathered volunteers and staff every morning at the same time, before the food bank opens its doors, to give his talk — ending always with an energetic nod to the “sweet team!” (The final station in the U-shaped distribution line, the sweets table puts many smiles on many faces, piled high with plentiful varieties of baked goods.)

          “The next manager will have to come up with their own shtick,” Brian muses on one of his last days.

          It’s clear that Brian and his pep talks will be missed. “I can’t think of a single person with a better temperament for this kind of work,” says Eido, a regular volunteer and shopper at the food bank. “I once saw a Chinese lady punch him in the face,” he states with wide eyes, “and [Brian] didn’t do anything. Didn’t yell, didn’t react at all. He’s just got a really calm way about him.”

          Peter also shares thoughts about Brian’s departure — Brian was one of Peter’s only friends when he arrived in Seattle, and they have worked closely together ever since. “It just seemed like we clicked so good, with the food bank… I’m gonna miss the guy,” Peter says, adding as a sunny afterthought: “I’m sure they’ll get somebody good though.” (Brian’s successor, Lily Glover, stepped into the role just this week. We at City Fruit wish her the best, and we’re certain she’ll find her groove — and her shtick — in no time.)

          With only three full-time staff members and three Americorps positions, the food bank depends heavily on its volunteers. Many have been giving their time for years, seeing the food bank through several staff transitions — and many volunteers are also clients who shop. Eido and his wife Jessica have been volunteering at the Pike Market Food Bank every week for about a year.

          “We were clients,” Eido says, “and we waited in line, but we’d watch people volunteering back in the warehouse, and we thought — why wait in line when we could help?”

          This generosity of spirit is almost tangible amongst the team at Pike Market food bank. Another regular volunteer is Hermes Bernard — who goes by Bernard, “because it’s easier for people.” Bernard has been volunteering for nine years. He lives in Tacoma now, but commutes all the way to Seattle every Tuesday, and some Thursdays, just for the community at Pike Market Food Bank.

            Bernard is exceptionally passionate about food, and has been a vegetarian all his life. Originally from the Dominican Republic, Bernard moved to New York City at age sixteen, where he studied nutrition science, among other things. He also enjoys shopping before and during his volunteer shift — always particularly excited to find a good vegetarian sandwich, any fancy cheeses, and specialty produce items, like green onions. (I had the pleasure of sampling some of Bernard’s homemade vegetarian empanadas, when he brought them into the food bank one day. From one vegetarian to another — heavenly!)

            “In the beginning, I saw a lot of bitterness from people,” Bernard remarks. “You know, [the clients] have a hard time separating what they are going through and what you are doing for them — even though you are helping them. I say good morning, and people are just tough, in their own world”– he pulls his hat down over his face to demonstrate.

          In an attempt to soften some of this hardness, Bernard chooses to take a very gentle and playful approach with the customers. Part of a volunteer’s job in the distribution line is to enforce limitations — to make sure there will be enough for everyone. Bernard makes a fun shtick out of this. Rather than getting agitated or telling people to move along, when customers try to take more than they are allowed, Bernard gently slaps his own hand and says “pow pow!”

          “Because they know the rules,” he says, “you just have to remind them. I never get angry, never yell at people, just a little ‘pow pow.’” After nine years with this approach, Bernard has seen a noticeable shift in people’s attitudes. Many of the regulars are friendly with him now (Bernard estimates that the food bank customers are about 85 percent the same folks, since he’s been working there). Not only do people laugh at Bernard’s familiar “pow pow” shtick, the customers also know that he is looking out for them. Bernard’s passion for food translates seamlessly into a passion for satisfying the food wishes of others.

          “You tell me what you want, I see it, I save it for you,” he states simply. Bernard can often be seen leaning across the counter, leveling with a customer: “What do you want, my brother.” Or he’ll quickly suss out if a person has dietary restrictions: “Vegetarian? I have something for you my friend,” and he pulls out the frozen vegetarian lasagna he had put aside. If he can go out of his way to make someone’s shopping experience a little bit better, he will.

            Bernard reminds other volunteers that it’s always best not to show aggression towards another, no matter how they behave. Just as Eido remarked about Brian’s temperament, many of the other staff and volunteers tout the virtues of keeping a calm countenance, no matter what is going down. “All volunteers should be trained in this,” Bernard declares.

          (As a side note — the Ballard Food Bank does offer training workshops in conflict de-escalation, for any who are interested!)

            Arthur O’Neal, another regular, also enjoys keeping a playful and fun atmosphere in the distribution area. As he floats around, helping with tasks like carting away cardboard boxes and seeing people into the waiting area, Art finds time to make quippy announcements about the produce selection: “All right, now see this?” He holds up an apple. “This is a Johnny Appleseed apple right here. Johnny Appleseed. And we’ve got some carrots, signed by celebrities!” A self-proclaimed character, Art and his jovial attitude have livened up the Pike Market Food Bank in the five months he has been a volunteer and shopper.

            “Our food bank is grounded in community,” states the Pike Market Food Bank website. If you should one day find yourself in this tucked away gem of Pike Place Market, whether as a customer, a volunteer, a visitor, or some combination thereof, this value is sure to come through and greet you warmly. We at City Fruit look forward to continuing our work with these folks in the future!