Last spring, the Byrd Barr Place Food Bank in downtown Seattle faced a crisis. Almost overnight, its normally reliable stable of volunteers, most of them older, suddenly became unavailable because of COVID-19 dangers – leaving only two paid employees to keep the busy food bank running.
At the same time, the demand for food support was growing exponentially as many people lost their jobs and access to other resources and programs. Despite the need, it wasn’t clear whether the food bank could keep going.
And yet, when Brian Yeager, the food bank’s coordinator, heard that the National Guard was willing to help out, his initial response was a definite “no.” “My preconceived notions about the military weren’t great,” Brian says. “But I was overruled, they showed up, and it was awesome.”
That moment of desperation in the spring of 2020 led to an unlikely partnership between the National Guard and the Seattle Food Committee, which allowed 27 food banks across Seattle to serve a rapidly growing number of people facing food insecurity despite the complications of a global pandemic coupled with a drastic shortage of volunteers.
And despite coming from very different worlds, the soldiers of the National Guard and the food justice advocates of Seattle’s food banks quickly figured out how to work together, learn from one another, and even forge friendships likely to outlive the pandemic.
“The enthusiasm and commitment they demonstrated was truly impressive,” says Yamila Sterling-Baker, Program Manager for Solid Ground’s Food System Support, which supports the Seattle Food Committee. “This is an amazing example of how people can come together for a common cause, and how quickly they can do it when the need is as great as it has been.”
Adapting to a pandemic
From April 2020 to the end of last month, a rotating team of as many as 15 National Guard soldiers worked alongside food bank coordinators across Seattle to collect and break down donations, package deliveries, coordinate distribution, and do whatever it took to keep the food banks running, often behind the scenes.
“The National Guard kept things running while we were trying to figure everything out. In the end, we never missed a beat for our community. We never shut down, we continued to make sure people got the food they needed, and we did it all together.” ~Brian Yeager, Byrd Barr Place Food Bank Coordinator
At the same time, Seattle’s food banks were trying to figure out new ways to serve people in need during a pandemic, which included engaging Solid Ground Transportation (SGT) drivers to deliver food to people who couldn’t leave their homes. Some programs, like the Ballard Food Bank, experimented with drive-thru food distribution, which allows participants to pick up food without leaving their car.
“The National Guard kept things running while we were trying to figure everything out,” Brian says. “In the end, we never missed a beat for our community. We never shut down, we continued to make sure people got the food they needed, and we did it all together.”
The food banks also managed to keep up with skyrocketing demand. Some programs, like Byrd Barr Place, saw the number of people seeking assistance increase as much as seven-fold over previous years.
In all, the National Guard soldiers made 258 food deliveries and 196 supply deliveries to food banks between April 2020 and July 2021, making sure Seattle food banks were stocked with food as well as sanitation supplies and personal protective equipment, including masks, face shields, hand sanitizer, gloves, disinfectant, thermometers, air filters, and even items like toilet paper, paper towels, and tissues.
Breaking down preconceptions
Yeager wasn’t the only one who went into this unusual partnership with some misgivings. The National Guard soldiers assigned to the Seattle Food Committee were all volunteers who had signed up to provide COVID-19 relief, but many were unfamiliar with concepts like “food insecurity” and “food injustice” and had never been inside a food bank. For them, it was an enlightening experience.
“I think it was an eye-opener for all the soldiers, leadership included,” says Staff Sergeant (SSG) Jason Wagner. “You don’t see how much need there is until you go into these food banks.”
Many of the soldiers were also serving communities that tend to be distrustful of the military and police, particularly during last year’s anti-racism protests. And they were often working with organizations that reject the strict hierarchy that’s a fixture of the military.
But perhaps because of the urgency and scale of the need, both sides overcame their preconceptions and quickly figured out how to work together with incredible results. Despite his initial reluctance to partner with the military, Brian said he was soon taking notes about how the Guard applied military-style efficiency to the logistics of operating a food bank.
Sergeant First Class (SFC) Darrin Crosby says many of his soldiers also gained an appreciation of the scale of food insecurity in the U.S. and talked about wanting to continue volunteering once their mission ended and they returned to civilian life.
A need without end
The National Guard’s mission ended on July 30, but the work of Seattle’s food banks is far from over.
Brian says the lines outside Byrd Barr continue to grow longer each week, and he expects them to stay long for several more years – just as they did after the Great Recession. Volunteers have started to come back, but he says the thought of keeping up with the demand without the help of the Guard is still “a little scary.”
SSG Jason Wagner is worried too. “The need is still going to be there,” he says. “Just because the Natural Guard is going away doesn’t mean the need is going away.”
Want to support Seattle’s food banks? Go to the Seattle Food Committee website to find your local food bank and learn about other ways to support Seattle’s food banks.