By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
Standing outside a chain-link fence with a floppy hat and an old jacket faded from 30 years of washing, Fong Yuen, 70, said, “I don’t need new clothes. I can still wear these.”
She has come to the Rainier Valley Food Bank on two busses and is now standing for a wait that she knows will be three hours.
She will receive a bag with some chicken, some vegetables, and other groceries.
“I can make it last a day, maybe two,” she said.
Then she’ll have to wait until the food bank opens again, which will not be for another three days.
She is not alone.
According to Seattle Public Utilities (SPU), one quarter of a million people in King County do not have enough food to eat.
And yet 30 percent of the garbage that is thrown away here is food.
“These two facts should not coexist,” said Mami Hara, the general manager at SPU.
Now, SPU is reaching out to food banks, like the one in Rainier Valley, to make sure that even more food that might otherwise be thrown away from restaurants and grocery stores do not make it into the garbage stream.
Wasted food produces methane gas when rotting and is one of the leading causes of climate change. At the same time, that food could go to feed people like Yuen, who survives on less than $800 a month, a pension from her decades of working in a factory as a seamstress, which she must also use for all other expenses including medical bills.
The vision of yoking the two issues— wasted food and food insecurity—stems from Hara’s mandate at SPU. She was appointed in 2016 to focus on equity in Seattle’s public utilities.
“We provide the services that are essential for life,” she said in an interview. “And this focus is emblematic of the knowledge we have that climate impacts disproportionately affect low-income communities and communities of color.”
Besides setting expectations for businesses to donate to food banks, SPU has launched an array of initiatives recently to keep Seattle’s environment clean while contributing to the health and welfare of all its residents.
These include a ban on plastic bags, a new fleet of green energy trucks for garbage, recycling, and composting, and keeping water sources clean in low-income neighborhoods.
Food and life
On a recent Saturday, SPU arranged for a reporter to ride along with the delivery van for the Rainier Valley Food Bank to see how food partnership works.
Panting and rocking, the large van pulls out from a lot next to the food bank with David Hatcher-Mays at the wheel. A former telephone technician and the son of a minister, Hatcher-Mays said during his 30 years of entering homes around the Seattle area to effect repairs, he saw what a difference food made.
“When you would go into a house in Magnolia, for instance, the kids would know that every day when they came home, they would have food to eat, it made a huge difference,” he said.
In other homes, in other parts of the city, he noticed kids chugging soda and sugary drinks and fighting with each other. He guessed some of it was related to anxiety about food.
He backs into the loading dock behind a local Safeway. Entering the rear door, he gives a shout to the manager in a booth in the back. She asks him to sign in. Tentatively, he enters the meat department.
“Nothing for you today,” says the manager, coming over. Then he enters the store itself and walks down the aisle looking for the dairy department manager.
“Sorry, nothing today,” she says.
In the bakery, he takes away two baskets full of bread and one pumpkin pie. Asked if the food bank usually has such poor luck at Safeway, he replies, “It’s like life, you take what you get.”
His wife, Gloria, who is the executive director of the food bank, in a phone call, later confirmed that on some days, Safeway offers a bounteous contribution.
The next stop is PCC in Columbia City, where there are stacks and stacks of food.
Red plastic cartons overflow with potatoes, apples, designer bread, celery, milk, tofu, cream, cabbage, and eggs. There are even cans of organic turkey and liver cat food.
Hatcher-Mays pushes the tall stacks on a rolling platform through the plastic strips at the edge of the loading dock and loads them into the van.
Back at the food bank, volunteers rush out to help unload.
“We are not taking waste,” said James Gruspe, the coordinator for more than three years.
Standing in the midst of a surge of volunteers pushing carts to unload groceries and visitors coming up to ask questions, he said that the food bank creates a “supermarket-like” atmosphere where clients can choose the high-quality foods they want. Year round, he said, his workers and volunteers work with local farmers to provide fresh produce. And for holidays, they order specific food.
For Chinese New Year, for instance, they take in more red lettuce, snap peas, and green peas than usual.
For such an arrangement, they depend heavily on contributions, both from individuals and businesses. Some of the businesses they’ve found on their own. Others have come to help. SPU is starting a dialogue with even more. Thanks to the hard work of the food bank and these charitable businesses, for every dollar donated, it takes in a total of $12 thanks to matching funds.
The success is emblematic of the other changes that have come to the city in recent years.
A ban on plastic bags in Seattle, first introduced in 2008, finally passed in 2011, but was drastically updated in 2017. SPU spread word about the ban in a dozen languages, reaching out to all sorts of businesses, small and large. By last year, roughly 85 percent of businesses had stopped using plastic bags. And other cities nearby had introduced bans of their own.
One major threat to the ban, however, comes from an increase in food that is taken out or delivered from restaurants. In such cases, restaurants are not prohibited from using plastic bags.
And the increase in delivery companies, such as Uber Eats, Grubhub, and Caviar, has amplified the problem, according to a 2018 report by SPU.
Another way the city has fought to keep the environment clean is through the purchase of 200 new clean energy trucks for waste pickup.
“The fleet includes two, first in the nation, 100% electric class eight rear load trucks, plus four mid-size trucks for smaller routes and container delivery, and 12 small hybrid or full electric-support trucks or cars,” according to an SPU press release.
“The second all-electric route truck will be put into service in 2020. The green fleet includes 91 Waste Management trucks powered by renewable natural gas (RNG) — gas from garbage,” it said.
Waste management cleans garbage and processes it into RNG.
“The fleet also includes 80 Recology trucks that are powered by hydrogenated-derived diesel, produced from a range of renewable feedstocks, such as vegetable waste, soybean oil, and animal tallow,” it said.
Another full-size electric truck will be put into service later this year, added Sabrina Register, public information officer for SPU.
“Our solid waste fleet by the end of this year will be entirely fossil fuel free,” said Hara.
All of these changes are ways that SPU is coping with the huge growth of Seattle and its outlying areas.
Equity in water and food
Another one of SPU’s projects is to make sure wastewater and drinking water supplies are “the most resilient for income disparity and change,” said Hara.
This means shoring up low-income areas with up-to-date facilities.
Hara pointed to Southpark, where SPU has obtained a grant to build a new system and pump station to clean stormwater before it flows into the Duwamish River, as well as other improvements to the water supply.
Back at the food bank, such an approach is evident everywhere. One of the volunteers, wearing a hooded sweatshirt over tousled brown hair and a stubbled face, described working as part of a community to save lives as empowering.
Randy Baldwin, 60, struggled with drugs, gangs, and homelessness until he found a treatment program through Tabernacle Church. Now he arrives at 5:45 a.m. on Saturdays and volunteers for six hours. He also has a job driving dump trucks, but it is giving back to the community that keeps him going.
“It’s thanks to the guy up there,” he said, pointing up at the sky and winking.
Whether that is a concept, such as equity, mercy, or justice, or something else entirely, it’s certainly the same thing SPU is working towards.
To donate to the Rainier Valley Food Bank, go to: rvfb.org/take-action/donate-food-funds.
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.