A contributor’s foodstuff donations are gathered up in the parking lot of the South Kitsap Helpline food bank. (Bob Smith | Kitsap Daily News)

A contributor’s foodstuff donations are gathered up in the parking lot of the South Kitsap Helpline food bank. (Bob Smith | Kitsap Daily News)

SK Helpline food bank: Feeding families during COVID and the holiday

South Kitsap community is stepping up to help, Hardison says

PORT ORCHARD — As is usually the case on a Monday, the parking lot at South Kitsap Helpline was bustling with activity.

Visitors dodged incoming and outgoing vehicles carrying folks either making a stop to pick up food items or those dropping off boxes of donated groceries. And on this morning, executive director Jennifer Hardison sighed as a large septic-tank truck pulled in to service the site, blocking the busy flow of traffic as it backed into position.

But, as Hardison sighed, it was just another day at the not-for-profit organization’s compact site, which provides food and social-service assistance to members of the South Kitsap community.

While it’s been busy as usual, the Helpline food bank’s visitor traffic has actually been slightly lower than usual, even during the COVID-19 pandemic’s economic path of destruction that has impacted this community and others around the country. While some food-bank locations in places like Dallas and New Orleans have been featured on national news programs with mile-long vehicle lineups awaiting a chance to pick up food items, that hasn’t been the case here.

“While we’re definitely busy, it’s been different,” Hardison said while watching the interaction from the parking lot.

Because we’re in the midst of the holiday season, she said there have been fewer numbers who have been needing a little more food for their families.

The slightly reduced numbers of people needing their services can mainly be attributed to the added attention paid by the state of Washington to those affected by COVID-19, Hardison said.

“They are really taking care of their folks — more so than a lot of states,” she said. “We definitely have had a lot of assistance made available. There is a lot of food assistance for people right now, which is awesome.”

The financial assistance has come from a variety of sources — federal, state, county and private. Over the summer, Hardison said, special pandemic EBT Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, cards have been made available for families with children. As part of this special assistance program, qualifying families are receiving $399 in food funding for each child.

Helpline has been fortunate to receive extra food through the U.S. government’s federal food commodity program for people living at or below the poverty level. Commodity food can be picked up three times each month at the food bank. Kitsap County has also provided the organization with some CARES ACT funding, which Hardison said has been a big help.

She said the food bank at 1012 Mitchell Ave. in Port Orchard, as well as other Kitsap County food banks, have received a substantial amount of food from pop-up fruit and vegetable stands in eastern Washington.

And as importantly, the South Kitsap community has stepped forward to help people who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic. That has included a steady stream of people bringing foodstuff donations to the Mitchell Avenue location. Others have dropped off check donations or are donating money online or over the phone to avoid possible COVID-19 exposure.

“We always welcome cash donations,” Hardison said. “We can use the money to purchase through some of the food buying services for 3 cents a pound. We can get some really good deals.”

She said Helpline also works with a number of local grocery stores to buy bulk food. The food bank also has a thriving plant nursery and grows much of the vegetables it dispenses to its customers.

While Helpline at this time of the year would normally be actively engaged with local service organizations such as the Port Orchard Eagles to raise funds for holiday food items, the pandemic has curtailed most of that effort. Still, through a patchwork of sources, food and funds for holiday dinners continue to arrive.

“In December, all of our holiday food goes out in our carts during the month,” the executive director said.

“We’re looking for stuffing, gravy and canned cranberries. We’re figuring out what we’re going to do as far as meat goes. We have gift cards donated through Northwest Harvest so that people can go out and purchase their own food, rather than us going out and doing the big food drives we do every year. Nothing’s usual right now.”

As always, Hardison said, the organization is especially grateful to receive protein-based items like peanut butter and canned tuna fish. She said the food bank has limited perishable-food storage, so non-perishable items are especially valued.

In addition to helping fill folks’ food pantries at home, Helpline has been signing up people for food assistance through the SNAP program.

“We know there are probably so many more people who qualify because they’re out of work and they don’t realize they don’t have to wait in line [to register] in Bremerton. They can call us and we can help them right over the phone. There’s no need for them to wait in line.”

South Kitsap Helpline, which requires facemasks for its visitors, is open from noon to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. The office phone number is 360-876-4089 and the website address is skhelpline.org.

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