Peggy Kennedy admits that she didn’t realize what she was getting into when she and co-founder Gretchen Dixon started the Edmonds Food Bank in a closet at Edmonds United Methodist Church 30 years ago.
“We had no refrigerator or freezer space,” Kennedy recalled. “We were serving 20 people a week and thought it would last six weeks, but the need just seems to keep growing.”
Today, about 1,600 people visit the food bank, located at 828 Caspers St., weekly for a three-day supply of canned and packaged goods, fresh produce, pastry and the occasional fresh dairy and meat, depending on what is donated by local grocery stores and other sources.
After three decades of service to the Edmonds community and beyond (unlike most area food banks, the Edmonds location provides food for anyone who shows up, regardless of residency), the Edmonds Food Bank is celebrating with a party this week to thank donors and volunteers. It’s official name is the Carol Rowe Memorial Edmonds Food Bank, named in honor of the woman who operated Edmonds’ first-ever food bank in her home in the 1960s and died of cancer. Before the current Edmonds United Methodist Church location was established, Edmonds residents had been going to a food bank at Terrace View Presbyterian, which was difficult for older clients and those with disabilities to access, Kennedy noted.
Kennedy and Dixon oversaw the food bank together for a few years until Dixon took a full-time job. (Dixon has since retired and come back — along with her husband Bob — as a food bank volunteer.) Kennedy directed the food bank as an unpaid volunteer until 15 years ago, when she started receiving a part-time salary.
At first, the women would use cash donations to purchase food from grocery stores, at a discount. Then they received certification from Volunteers of America Western Washington (VOAWW), which provides food, housing and support services for those in need and also collects donations for area food banks. The certification opened the door for the Edmonds Food Bank to collect excess food from area grocery stores. It’s a practice that Kennedy continues today, with volunteer drivers picking up donations from TOP Food, Safeway, Costco, QFC, Petosa’s, Fred Meyer, Central Market and Trader Joe’s. In addition, Bartell Drug and Target donate paper, personal hygiene and cleaning products, and those stores plus local veterinary clinics also provide pet food — all items not covered by food stamps, Kennedy said. Donations are also received from VOAWW and Northwest Harvest, which distribute produce and other food donations they’ve received to Puget Sound-area food banks.
Donations are also shared among the local food banks and feeding programs, including the weekly Annie’s Kitchen meal at Edmonds Lutheran Church and Lynnwood’s Trinity Lutheran Church, which serves many who are homeless.
Being able to pick up grocery stores’ excess — from day-old baked goods or past-sell-date canned items — “works out for all of us,” since the stores can deduct donations from their federal income taxes, Kennedy said.
Over the years, the Edmonds Food Bank has grown out of the closet at Edmonds United Methodist, moving to a church bathroom, then to a classroom and, finally, to its current location: a former stage located downstairs. The Boeing Employees Community Fund donated a walk-in freezer and cooler, along with three trucks that are used for donation pickups. In addition to providing the space, the church covers all other expenses, ranging from insurance for volunteer drivers to electricity.
A total of 120 volunteers work seven days a week but the bulk of their time is spent sorting and bagging donations for Tuesday, when food bank clients arrive. Those with disabilities (doctor’s verification required) and students (proof of enrollment) who live in Edmonds are served first, from 9:30-10 a.m., with all other Edmonds residents admitted between 10-11 a.m. Non-Edmonds residents with disabilities are served from 11-11:30 a.m. with remaining clients able to enter from 11:30 a.m.-noon.
If someone can’t come on Tuesdays, the food bank will make arrangements for pick-up on another day, Kennedy said. “All we ask is, if you are not able to pick up the food, please call us,” so it can be given to someone else, she added.
All those receiving food are asked for an address, but proof of residency isn’t required. Clients are also asked the size of their family and any dietary restrictions, such as diabetic or gluten- or salt-free. The congregation made the decision early on to provide food to all those who come, rather than limiting donations to local residents. “Edmonds residents come through first because they are not allowed anywhere else,” she said.
The food bank is designed to supplement and not be any client’s sole food source, and recipients are asked to visit only one area food bank a week. But Kennedy knows that some clients break that rule. With a three-day food supply, “if you’ve got teenagers, that will last half a day,” said Kennedy, who herself raised four children while overseeing the food bank. “I can’t imagine the horror of not being able to feed my child.”
“We see people from youngest to oldest,” Kennedy said. The Edmonds Senior Center bus brings seniors in need on a weekly basis and the food bank also serves between 25-35 babies a week. Over the years, the food bank has also seen it’s share of what Kennedy calls “ex-millionaires” who have lost everything. They receive donations but they also insist on volunteering, she said, and “they eventually get back on their feet.”
“It’s really hard to see a young or middle-aged man go through the line,” she said. “They feel like a failure. We try to make it as loving and kind as we can.”
Reflecting on the food bank’s 30 years in Edmonds, Kennedy said the biggest challenge at first was convincing members of her own church congregation that there was a need in a city viewed as mostly affluent. “When we first started, nobody wanted us here,” she said. It was equally difficult for those receiving the services. “At first, it was very hard for a person in Edmonds to come to a food bank,” she said. “But I don’t care where you are — even Beverly Hills has pockets of poverty.”
Kennedy can’t say enough about her hard working corps of volunteers, many of whom who are retired and have found the Food Bank to be like a second family. “These are good jobs for older people,” said Kennedy, herself an energetic 83 years old. “They know that they are needed and wanted, which isn’t always the case in our society.” The food bank also has a core group of teen volunteers receiving community service hours from their school.
The food bank still has a need for volunteer drivers who are willing to work two hours on a Saturday or Sunday to pick up grocery store donations, Kennedy said. “All you need is a regular driver’s license and a good driving history.” The food bank didn’t use to collect donations on weekends, but with grocery stores tightening their belts during the economic downturn, there is less food given away. “We have to take it when we can get it,” she noted.
As she prepares for the 30-year celebration this week, Kennedy — who was named Edmonds’ Citizen of the Year in 2010 — said that her work at the food bank “is what keeps me going. We have a lot of fun. We care a lot about each other.
“In our wildest dreams, we never thought we’d still be needed,” she said. “We keep trying to work ourselves out of business.”