How One Innovative Seattle Food Bank Pivoted

The University District Food Bank in Seattle responded to the pandemic with a pivot.

The economic devastation caused by COVID-19 has been a slap in the face for millions, including many who formerly worked in the troubled restaurant industry.

Food is being prepared for delivery to homes of people in need at the University District Food Bank in … [+] Seattle. Up to 1,200 households are supplied per week.

Joshua Trujillo


Again, the nation’s pantries were dramatically affected. For the extensive network of community organizations established over the years to address food insecurity, responding to growing demand as resources become scarce has been challenging.

However, there is a certain good side to a neighborhood grocery bank in Seattle these dark days. For example, the university district’s food bank has cleverly adapted during the pandemic.

At the beginning

The University District Food Bank got its humble start in 1983 in the basement of a church with a small, seedy executive team. The current team worked diligently for years to raise enough financial support to move operations to a much larger facility in 2016. The 2,200-square-foot space is on the ground floor of affordable apartments and adjacent to a professional-qualification coffee shop called Street Bean. The move allowed the grocery bank to expand on its original, groundbreaking approach.

Instead of handing out random bags of groceries, this tiny operation pioneered the practice of inviting their customers into a supermarket-like setting. That way, customers could buy ingredients that made sense for their needs. Support from grocery stores, restaurants, and Saturday’s farmers’ market helped keep the shelves well stocked.

Success has led to broader initiatives including a program that sends low-income students home with groceries for the weekend. CEO Joe Gruber explains:

“Packs for Kids started for us in 2009 with a few students from a nearby middle school. It has grown to reach students in 14 schools from kindergarten through 12th grade. Before COVID, we supported approximately 550 to 600 students per week. Now we’re still helping more than 600 students a week with virtual learning. “He added that this effort would not be possible without dedicated volunteers in the participating schools.

Volunteers are essential to carry out the pandemic pivot, which has been in place since spring when Seattle was one of the first cities in the country to be badly hit by the virus.

University District Food Bank customers in Seattle can have special requests.

The University District Food Bank in Seattle has evolved into a personal shopping model over time … [+] Pandemic.

Joshua Trujillo

National Guard members help out at the University District Food Bank in Seattle.

Private First Class Josh Valerio and Private First Class Roty Kpa, members of the Washington … [+] National Guard, prepare food for delivery to the homes of people in need at the University District Food Bank. The presence of the National Guard is part of the linchpin of the organization during the pandemic.

Joshua Trujillo

A Seattle food bank saw a huge surge in home deliveries during the pandemic.

Volunteer Peg Curtin prepares food for delivery to people in need at the university … [+] District Food Bank in Seattle.

Joshua Trujillo


Pandemic Pivot

Since the health crisis started last spring, millions of Americans have been unemployed and struggling to pay bills and buy groceries. This fall it was widely reported that more than 8 million people had slipped into poverty. According to government reports, by the end of the year the US will see the largest increase in poverty since the 1960s.

Organizations like the University District Food Bank suddenly faced new challenges. There was concern that the annual fall auction, the main fundraiser, would be negatively affected. Over the past several years, restaurants, grocers, breweries, and wineries across the state of Seattle had donated generously to the event.

As many of these companies struggled to stay afloat, many remained committed to making a contribution. The virtual event – complete with a meal from Cameron Catering, a loyal partner – was a hit. More than $ 240,000 was raised.


Tom Douglas, the city’s most successful restaurateur, was one of those who continued the tradition of donation: “The distribution of emergency food is part of the fabric of our neighborhoods and represents the courtesy of our society. We are proud to be part of this network, and now that many of our former employees rely on services from places like the University District Food Bank, we have redoubled our efforts to be part of a much-needed hunger solution. ”

Among the numerous adjustments made by this organization, none has been more effective than expanding its home delivery option. Weekly numbers have doubled since the beginning of the pandemic. Up to 500 orders are delivered per week.

“Home delivery is open to people who do not have access to the food bank due to age, frailty, disability, illness or any other illness,” said Gruber. “During the COVID-19 crisis, we expanded to include people who are at increased risk because of their health, the health of a family member, or because they work in a high-risk environment.”


Meanwhile, the protocol for personal shopping has changed. Customers are now filling out and dropping off a list so that volunteers can fill out any order using the existing social distancing protocol. Somewhat surprisingly, this development has led to an increase in requests for fresh fruit and vegetables, said Gruber.

Home delivery requests have increased at the University District Food Bank in Seattle.

Volunteers Nancy Howard and Martin Chew load their pickups with groceries for delivery to people’s homes … [+] in distress at the University District Food Bank in Seattle. Some home deliveries are made by bike.

Joshua Trujillo

The U-District Food Bank in Seattle supplies up to 1,500 households a week.

Inquiries for home deliveries from Seattle’s University District Food Bank have doubled.

Joshua Trujillo


Step up to help

While some volunteers have been forced to drop out due to the pandemic, the university district’s food bank has been fortunate to have others come forward to help. More than 250 volunteers are now helping with the operation.

“We benefit from a healthy community in which so many work from home that their work is not impaired,” Gruber said in a recent telephone interview. “There is an increased awareness and understanding of the importance of support from small businesses and community members.”

The increased demand and continued support from the community also mean the grocery bank has hired a few more part-time workers, including at least one who previously worked as a bartender in the restaurant industry.


“There are probably a lot more people coming in from the restaurant community for the first time, but we use a light touch when interacting with our customers. We don’t ask a lot of questions, ”explained Gruber.

The prospects for the future remain uncertain. What goes without saying, however, is that at the beginning of spring the roof garden that feeds the food banking community will be replanted. The main crops of the last year were the 300 tomato plants as well as abundant harvests of radishes and fresh herbs.

Check out this video from Greg Westhoff from Tideway Creative to see how a Seattle food bank has adapted to the challenges of the pandemic:


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