‘We will not let Skagit County starve:' Food bank rethinks strategy for coronavirus future

SEDRO-WOOLLEY, Wash. – Coronavirus is already having an impact on our most vulnerable neighbors.

A North Sound food bank suddenly closed its doors this week in response to the danger the virus poses to volunteers, staff and clients, but the closure is not permanent.

Helping Hands Food Bank in Sedro-Woolley decided it had to radically rethink how it serves the public while making sure safety was a priority.

“We’re all having to make changes, and I’m really sad it’s come to this,” said Nichole Long, Director of Development at the food bank.

“I’m really encouraged and filled with hope that our donors, volunteers and community is behind us with whatever model we have to go to, and we will keep going. We will not let Skagit County starve,” she said.

The parking lot is now padlocked, the building off-limits to the public. Already, hungry families needing food have been turned away. More clients will also be turned away through the rest of the week as the organization prepares new operating procedures.

Long says the food bank’s board didn’t make the decision to close for the week lightly.

“The day-to-day reality that we’re in, it was apparent we had to cease what we were doing, to regroup and make sure we adapt to the new normal,” she said.

The food bank’s building was originally designed to remove the stigma for clients. Families used to be able to come in and shop. The experience was meant to offer the public a dignified experience for those needing help. Inside, the facility had the look and feel of a grocery store.

Last week nearly 1,000 people got their food from the food bank. Every year, some 150,000 individuals depend on the free food. But now that coronavirus is a concern, the new normal of social distancing and healthy practices meant the organization’s model had to change.

“We needed to do it right now, restructure, ask for help and be ready to go when things get worse,” said Executive Director Rebecca Larsen.

Organization officials say they’re getting support from local leaders and law enforcement to help them design a new system scheduled to begin distributing food to hungry families next week. Clients will soon be served very differently and at a different location.

“You drive in, you pick up a box and you take off,” said Larsen. “We really limit how many people come into the building for the safety of staff and participants.”

The organization plans to deep clean the building, establish new protocols to continue offering food for those who need it the most.

“Helping Hands wants to make a stand and say no, coronavirus is not just another blip on the radar,” said Long. “This is something we need to take seriously and we’re making those changes to keep everyone safe.”

In a press release, the organization said it was not aware any staff members, volunteers or clients who had become sick with COVID-19.

The agency is asking for financial contributions to help continue serving what is anticipated to be a growing need in the months to come.

The new distribution model is expected to begin next week. The location and timing of Helping Hands’ reopening has yet to be announced.