The number of people facing hunger in Washington state appears to have doubled amid the coronavirus pandemic, and by the end of the year potentially 1 in 5 Washingtonians will be experiencing hunger.
Those were some of the numbers leaders of the state Department of Agriculture and the state's largest food banks gave reporters at a press conference Thursday about food assistance needs across Washington as unemployment claims have skyrocketed.
"The number of people seeking food at food banks and pantries doubled up to 1.6 million and continued to climb to over 2 million people per month," said Derek Sandison, director of the state Department of Agriculture.
There were 1.12 million people in the state who sought food assistance in the fiscal year that ended in June 2019. The current estimate is that 2.2 million are facing food insecurity.
"We're in this for the long-haul," Sandison said. "... We expect elevated demand to continue well into 2020."
Gov. Jay Inslee and Philanthropy Northwest started the WA Food Fund in April, which has raised more than $10 million for three organizations that stock food banks in Washington: Food Lifeline, Northwest Harvest and Second Harvest.
"We're hopeful that Congress will act to provide additional resources to the states," Sandison said.
Katie Rains, food assistance specialist with the Department of Agriculture, said some organizations throughout the state have reported anecdotally that demand is as much as seven times above what they usually see. Others have seen demand stay fairly neutral, she said.
Jason Clark, the CEO of Second Harvest, spoke about what he's been seeing in Eastern Washington.
"The need has just been staggering," he said. "... Folks who have never had to rely on a food bank are trying to figure out how to do that during a pandemic."
Food banks have turned to an emergency food-box system and drive-through distribution sites to get supplies to those in need while taking safety precautions against COVID-19.
Packing the boxes is labor intensive, Clark said. National Guard troops have been helping.
Clark said at one event in March in Pasco ,Second Harvest had 250 boxes. Six hundred cars showed up.
"That was our first indicator that something new was happening," he said.
At another drive-through event, 1,100 cars showed up.
About half of the people seeking help had not been to a food bank before.
Linda Nageotte, the CEO of Food Lifeline, said in Western Washington also about half the people at their drive-through distributions have not turned to the food bank system before.
"While we know that the number of people facing hunger has doubled since the beginning of the pandemic, we've likely not seen the worst yet," she cautioned. "We expect that by the end of this year, potentially one in five Washingtonians could be facing hunger, and we know that the need will remain elevated for many, many months to come."
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