In Seattle, there is a two-lane street shaded by broad-trunked evergreen trees within one of the city’s largest parks. On a sunny summer morning, the voices of children playing flowed over lawns surrounding a playground, overlaying the sound of cars on nearby Sand Point Way.
To the east, broad swaths of playfields were separated from Lake Washington by dense stands of trees. And in front of a two-story brick building that once housed Naval personnel, now renamed Mercy Magnuson Place, a volunteer placed a folding sign: “Food Pantry is open today, 11am–3pm.”
On Wednesday, August 14, people in need gathered at a new place to obtain food for themselves and their families when a consortium of Seattle social services agencies staged the “soft opening” of the Magnuson Park Community Food Pantry. As Joe Gruber, Executive Director of the University District Food Bank told the dozen or so volunteers gathered in the newly refurbished Common Room, “We plan to run it as a pilot for about a year to find out if there is a need for a food bank here [and] learn what people’s food needs are.”
“The goal is to provide a really good shopping experience.” ~Kate Parker, Mercy Housing Northwest
While the initial shoppers for the new food pantry were mainly residents of the two nearby affordable housing complexes – Mercy Magnuson Place-South and Solid Ground’s Sand Point Housing – anyone who meets the requirements to receive government assistance will be welcome. Both shoppers and volunteer staff are likely to throng to the historic structures of the Sand Point Community Housing Association once they have visited the building’s Common Room, a space about 60 feet long and half that in width, lit lavishly with morning sun through high, east-facing windows.
According to Kate Parker, Mercy Housing Northwest’s Regional Director of Resident Services, each of the four partners, which also includes the Seattle YMCA, brings what they do best to the project: “The goal is to provide a really good shopping experience. I tell my staff: ‘You should always want Bill Gates to walk in your place.’”
A few minutes before opening hour, volunteers in pairs and clusters wearing hygienic rubber gloves stood behind a row of folding tables that stretched from the room’s entryway to its exit, each stacked with packaged and canned goods. Carts stacked with food clicked as their wheels rolled over terracotta floor tiles.
From the table nearest the entrance, the offerings started with heavy items such as canned soup and proteins, then moved on to canned tuna, chili, and peanut butter, followed by apples and bananas, lettuce, broccoli and carrots. At the end of the main table were loaves of bread, bagels, and even treats like lady fingers. A table set at a right angle off the main line offered the day’s dairy, cheese, and yogurt.
Just before opening, Joe worked to tag the tables with labels that identified the items and how much food each person could take. People entering the pantry receive a slip marked either 1, 2, or 3. A single person can take one item from each food group, people shopping for two people can take two, and families can take three. As he explained, “This is a new experience for our shoppers.”
When the first excited shoppers entered the room, chatter and laughter filled the space. A woman asked, “Why are the split peas yellow instead of orange?” A man tried to pay for a can of soup with one of the food vouchers he’d been given for the Seattle Neighborhood Farmers Market and was told that it is for fresh produce at any of the city’s seven farmer’s markets.
The scent of vegetarian pasta and oven-roasted vegetables – cooked in the room’s open kitchen by Adam Reichenberger, Youth Education Educator – demonstrated what Solid Ground’s Cooking Matters class participants might learn how to make. As they exited the room, bags stuffed with cans of food, fresh produce, and tubs of yogurt, Kate Parker offered visitors tubes of sunscreen, lotion, and other hygiene products.
As with all the city’s food banks, getting food out to the people who most need it would be impossible without the help of enthusiastic volunteers. Jack Irby of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church got involved with bringing food to Sand Point Housing residents early on. As he explained, “I would bring over boxes of tuna and macaroni and cheese, and leave them in a janitor’s closet.”
Even for someone who doesn’t enjoy shopping, staffing the tables at the new pantry is bound to be a pleasure. Not only do you get a chance to give back to your community and enjoy the appreciation of the people you serve, but you get to do so in a vintage building set in beautiful scenery that many of the people visiting this pantry call home.
Volunteers are needed for shifts between 9:30am–3pm every Wednesday. Contact Megan Wildhood for more information: firstname.lastname@example.org.