A Look Inside the New University District Food Bank
As I scroll through my Facebook newsfeed each Sunday evening, I encounter endless articles about meal planning. “7 ways to eat healthier this week,” is a familiar headline. “Secret to clean eating habits” is another.
But how do the thousands of homeless or impoverished families in Seattle find nutritious meals? How do people who can’t regularly afford and store a basket of fresh fruit and veggies get the healthy produce they deserve? Well, there’s a group of folks already addressing those very questions — and they work at the University District Food Bank (UDFB).
The UDFB has operated for 33 years, aiming to build community relationships in addition to providing meals and food resources to people who can’t always access them. It’s been a bit of a challenge in recent years, though, with changing demographics and a drastic increase in the homeless population, and the UDFB hasn’t had much space to expand their mission or people capacity. Luckily, all of that changed this summer.
The UDFB recently moved into a gorgeous new space on Roosevelt Avenue. There’s an open house August 17 if you’d like to visit, so RSVP here and invite a friend while you’re at it! In the meantime, we’ll show you around the space in this article.
The UDFB’s old facility, located under University Christian Church over on The Ave, was only 800 square feet. It might be hard to picture, but if you’ve ever been on a regulation-sized racquetball court, you know that it’s not enough room for very many shopping carts, people, and shelves of food all at the same time.
This need for more waiting, shopping, and processing space drove the UDFB to make some serious changes, like uprooting their entire operation and moving to a facility three times the size of their original one. Not only that, but they partnered with YouthCare and Street Bean Coffee, so the UDFB’s new building features two levels of low-income-affordable housing and a coffee shop for community members to learn barista and other job skills.
I met with Robyn Greenfield, the Community Outreach Coordinator for the UDFB, and she said that after conducting a customer survey earlier this year, it’s clear that the changes people have been asking for are finally coming to life.
“A lot of issues people currently have with the space, like that it’s not ADA accessible, it’s too small, it’s difficult to access, there’s no indoor waiting — all of these things will be addressed in our new space,” Greenfield said. “We’re taking in mind any feedback we get because we have this new opportunity to change things up, and hopefully figure out how to serve people better.”
With the UDFB’s former location, there would be a line out the door on busy shifts, and sometimes that meant people had to wait under a classic Seattle downpour — even in the winter months. Now there’s a space for customers to wait inside no matter what time of year it is.
“Part of our mission is serve people with dignity, and it’s really difficult when you’re making people wait outside in the elements,” Greenfield explained. “It doesn’t allow for any privacy, and that is definitely a big part of it.”
Another particularly exciting feature of the new building is that there will be a rooftop garden for the UDFB to grow fresh produce and teach volunteers or community members the basics of urban agriculture. With some help from the UW Farm, plant-starts for the garden are already in the works, and Greenfield looks forward to their partnership cultivating even more support, which will ultimately increase the amount of nutritious food that food bank customers can access.
“They allowed us to store all of our 2,000 milk crates before they got moved to the roof, and allowed us to host work parties at the Center for Urban Horticulture to create the container gardens,” Greenfield said. “They’ve been an awesome partner, and we’re hoping to integrate them more into the actual garden by having their volunteers come help out or maybe even teach some workshops.”
These efforts to support food bank customers more holistically will bring more volunteers and community members to the food bank, and provide opportunities for people learn skills they can use in the future. But with new programs and more space comes new needs, and Greenfield wants you to know about all of the different ways to be involved.
While many volunteers for the UDFB are also customers there, UW students also help support the food bank’s volunteer needs during the school year (student participation dips in the summer months, as you would expect). But simply staffing the food bank isn’t the only challenge. Changing demographics in the U District make a volunteer who speaks more than one language a hot commodity. Got a car? That also helps.
“We love folks who speak many languages. Language and cultural barriers are definitely a huge challenge in food banks and service providers in general,” Greenfield said. “And we always need people to help with food pickups. The home delivery program has all volunteer drivers who take a different route each week, and in the future we’ll need 1-2 more.”
But aside from those specific needs, UDFB welcomes anyone who wants to be a part of the community and see tangible results.
“People who want to learn about other people’s experiences who are leading lives very different from their own, and folks who are willing to jump in wherever they’re needed and do a variety of tasks,” Greenfield said. “You never really know what you’re going to get into at the food bank.”
This fall, you can join The Whole U for a few work parties at the U District Food Bank, so check out the days of our events and register here. Prefer to volunteer on your own time or donate instead? Check out the food bank’s Fight Hunger Build Hope campaign or visit the UDFB volunteer website.