Your Own Backyard: Rainier Valley Food Bank

Picture yourself in a cozy house, with low ceilings and concrete floors. At 1200 square feet, the building feels like it’s hugging you. A couple of desks sit adjacent to the red front door; metal shelves of dry goods, bread, and coffee line the walls. Across the room are cardboard boxes filled with fresh produce. Oh, and about 25 smiling faces surround you. You are inside Rainier Valley Food Bank.

RVFB serves all, regardless of zip code. Guests can get groceries once per week, on a Wednesday or a Saturday. The only distinction between folks who live close by and folks who have traveled far is “federal food” — an extra shelf for clients from the food bank’s surrounding area. (Things like canned corn, raisins, cartons of milk, and juice.)

Staff and volunteers circle up around 9:05 in the morning on distribution days to talk through the game plan. They check in about the “color of the day” — guests receive stickers with different colors and numbers, depending on how many folks are in their household, and whether or not they’re eligible for federal food. They’ll also talk through the meat and produce they have available for the day. And to get everybody in the mood for a fun and productive distribution work session, they’ll go around the circle introducing themselves and offering a fun fact, such as which languages they speak, or their favorite plant. Halley Shriber, the food bank Community Outreach Coordinator, is very fond of Taraxacum officinale — the common dandelion.

    Between 400 and 600 people usually come through the food bank on their distribution days. One Saturday in April — as recorded on the wall in chalk — the food bank was visited by 616 guests.

    “And that’s not even our real total,” explains Miguel Jimenez, Development & Communications Manager at RVFB. A lot of folks pick up food for more than one family, so the number of people actually being served by the food bank can be significantly larger than the number of faces that come through the door.

    Still, it’s useful for the food bank to keep track of visitation numbers for many reasons. “Volunteers like to reference our daily numbers with how they felt that day,” Miguel says. “You know, a lot of people will work at one station all day, and at the end of it they may not have a sense of how the day really went.” Other volunteers who have been at it for a long while can tell the difference between 50 people coming or not coming to the food bank.

Miguel goes way back with City Fruit. He fondly recalls when he first started at Rainier Valley Food Bank; his job at the time was Resource Development Coordinator, which struck Miguel as a vague and lofty title. Nevertheless, he was ready to dive in and develop some resources.

“I remember meeting Luke [City Fruit’s Harvest Manager] when he brought in crates of fruit. And I thought, ‘great, this looks awesome — I should see if we can get more fruit!’” City Fruit and Rainier Valley Food Bank have since had a close partnership.

“Every time Luke brings in 3-4 crates of apples, that week 150 kids in the neighborhood get a snack. That’s one fruit tree in the city, one way that somebody can sign up with City Fruit without having to do a lot, and the impact is just enormous in our neighborhood. That’s kind of extraordinary to think about. They’re not eating a bag of potato chips. They’re eating something that you grew yourself.” (One of our favorite quotes of all time — courtesy of Miguel!)

Van Pham, a dedicated volunteer at Rainier Valley Food Bank, also thinks back to the impact of the harvest, and remembers City Fruit delivering plums and Asian pears. “People love them,” says Van. “Especially the plums.”

Van has been volunteering for about two and a half years, and has earned a reputation as the food bank mom. Other volunteers share stories of when Van has called them up after work to come pick up food.

“There was a period when Van made me dinner every Tuesday night,” offers Mica Rood, the food bank Volunteer & Guest Relations Coordinator. Van also makes use of items that might otherwise go to waste at the food bank, bringing them home to prepare scrumptious dishes for the volunteers. One Saturday she graced the workers with her homemade stir-fried noodles and fried rice, featuring extra chicken and ham from the food bank.

“I love to cook for the people that work hard,” Van says.

Van would know a thing or two about working hard — she volunteers just about every day at Rainier Valley Food Bank, when she isn’t busy caring for her mother. The combination of physical labor, being on her feet, working with her hands, and doing it all to help people — “it’s addictive for me,” Van states.

Above all, what keeps bringing Van back to the food bank is the sense of community. She has explored volunteer opportunities at other area food banks, but something about RVFB speaks to her. Another volunteer, Debra, chimes in: “It’s a really warm environment around here.” Van agrees that she has built relationships with the folks who work alongside her, as well as the food bank patrons — many of the regulars live in her mother’s building complex.

The sense of belonging is almost tangible amongst the volunteers and staff at Rainier Valley Food Bank. For some, it manifests as a sort of ownership over their particular areas of expertise. Art, a gentleman who volunteers every week, takes pride in organizing the shelves of canned goods.

“I’m really conscious about making everything look presentable,” Art says, “like it would in a grocery store.” Art makes sure the canned goods are grouped appropriately, stacked neatly, and turned with their labels facing out.

“It should be at the front of the shelf,” he adds, “not pushed to the back. They should look like something that you would want to buy.”

Rainier Valley Food Bank is excited to start partnering with folks who might be able to grow starts, or donate seeds, for the food bank patrons. “They want to grow their own food here,” says Halley Shriber (Community Outreach Coordinator, and Taraxacum officinale aficionado).

A while back, Halley picked up some seedlings from the Ballard Sprouts greenhouse — leftover broccoli, chard, lettuce, bok choy, and kale. The first four were extremely popular with the patrons, but kale was a harder sell. Anita Mei, the produce maven of Rainier Valley Food Bank, offers her wisdom on this — in most Asian cuisines, vegetables are always heavily cooked. Kale, although it makes fabulous green smoothies, doesn’t cook terribly well (or at least doesn’t suit the cooking palate of many Asian cuisines), which is why it doesn’t fly off the shelves here, as it might at a Whole Foods or PCC.

Evidently, this is a problem that extends beyond the kale seedlings — a lot of the food that comes to Rainier Valley Food Bank, from Food Lifeline, grocery store rescue, or other sources, is geared toward a white consumer.  

“We’re not a white food bank,” Halley states plainly. The clients at Rainier Valley Food Bank are predominantly Southeast Asian. Many diverse cultures are represented here, and the food offerings struggle to cater to that. Rice tends to disappear quickly, while dried beans and lentils remain on the shelf. Boxes of “Rice-A-Roni” will suffice, though they’re bound to elicit a raised eyebrow.

Rainier Valley Food Bank is anticipating a move in three years or so, to a larger space in the Othello neighborhood. The current space is in a good location, right off of Rainier Avenue, but for the number of folks who come through every week and the amount of food they need to store, it is rather a tight squeeze.

“We serve the largest population,” Halley says up front. Because RVFB welcomes folks from all zip codes, they naturally see the greatest amount of foot traffic — and they make sure there’s enough for everybody by enforcing limitations on items, and rotating produce options throughout the day. But of course, greater resources would allow the food bank to do even more great work, through their regular distribution and other supplementary programs.

Without a doubt, a bigger, more fluid space would be a boon to the Rainier Valley Food Bank — a place where the guests would be able to wait inside instead of lining up on the sidewalk, where volunteers wouldn’t have to shimmy past one another carrying boxes and refilling shelves. Nevertheless, there is something charming about the food bank’s current home — as there is with any place filled by passionate people who come together over food. It doesn’t dampen anybody’s spirits when the lights go out inexplicably. The day marches on.

When you think of Rainier Valley Food Bank, think of family. Things may not always be picture perfect, but you’re bound to find laughter and smiles in this close-quartered space. If you’ve been lucky enough to sample some of Van’s cooking, you are part of the family. If you’re a first-time guest, or a first-time volunteer, you’re still part of the family. If you have had the pleasure of being stared down by Miguel as he paces across the floor, singing “give me all your love,” you are definitely part of the family. No matter where you live, what language you speak, or what your need may be, you are welcome at Rainier Valley Food Bank — and chances are, you’ll be glad you came.