The Blue Mountain Action Council Food Bank has been working to meet the rising number of people in need of food assistance since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the area last March.

The number of Blue Mountain Action Council Food Bank clients grew from 27,000 people to 40,000 people per month within the five counties BMAC serves, including Walla Walla, Columbia, Franklin, Garfield and Asotin counties.

In response, the food bank is expanding its space from 5,000 square feet to 13,000 square feet and purchasing new equipment to store and haul the larger food distributions.

A new building was added to the property on 921 W. Cherry St. for pantry services, a canopy for outside drive-thru food distribution will be constructed and the food bank now uses additional space previously occupied by BMAC’s housing service.

Construction is expected to be completed in March and was funded through a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for $600,000 through coronavirus funding and other federal assistance. Another $600,000 still needs to be raised, but more financial assistance may come from the next stimulus package.

“We first had to respond to the immediate needs. Now we’re trying to respond to those needs in a sustainable fashion,” Food Bank Director Jeff Mathias said.

Stimulus packages that include assistance to people through programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, correlate with less demand at the Food Bank.

In January, the Food Bank saw a 20% decrease in demand from the last quarter, likely due to the stimulus package that added 15% benefits to SNAP, Mathias said.

The peak in total client visits to Washington state food pantries after the 2008 financial crisis was not until 2014, he said. It took seven years to see the full impact.

He anticipates, with the gravity of the economic situation in 2020 because of the pandemic, it will take even longer.

“We’re anticipating this will be a long, protracted line of growth,” Mathias said.

The Washington State Department of Agriculture gave $84,133 in supplemental funding to Walla Walla County on top of their annual funding of $57,901 in 2020. This equates to 250,995 extra pounds of food distributed added to the yearly 319,087 pounds, according to a fact sheet from the government agency.

Blue Mountain Action Council Food Bank is the leading agency for food assistance in Walla Walla County and surrounding counties.

The grant provided funds to construct a new building for pantry services to create a safer environment for public use and additional space.

The building is a new drop-off point for donations and a pickup point for the Pantry Shelf of Walla Walla, the city’s Sleep Center, St. Vincent De Paul and other organizations. BMAC will also use the space for storing food and for volunteer activities such as food sorting and food box assembly.

The Food Bank also purchased three new refrigerated trucks, replacing one old truck, and bought a refrigerated cargo van.

“They have a really nice lift gate on them,” Mathias said. “It makes a huge difference on what we can haul.”

The replacement truck is the same capacity as the previous one and can haul 12,000 pounds of food, but the two new trucks can move 27,000 pounds of food each.

A large cooler and a new freezer, three times the size of the old freezer, were also purchased.

“We couldn’t do what we’re doing, the way we had it before. We had to use all of our trucks for refrigerated capacity until we got this. Now we can load our trucks to go instead of just for storage.”

Drive-thru distributions will remain a common practice after the pandemic because it is more efficient and works better for some clients, he said.

A new canopy structure will allow staff and volunteers to be protected from the weather while conducting drive-thru distributions. It also provides lighting.

Cars will drive under the canopy, and staff will assist people there. The canopy is high enough for trucks to drive under because it slants upward from both ends. Rain will filter through a pipe down the middle.

The BMAC housing group, responsible for managing 152 low-income rental properties, purchased an office on 315 White St. and moved out of BMAC’s Cherry Street location in August, which provided the Food Bank with more building and garage space.

As part of the state’s coronavirus aid funding, the Food Bank will double its staff and hire four new people who were displaced by COVID-19.

Part of the operation is provided by Washington National Guardsmen, who have been assisting with food distribution instead of local volunteers since April to protect residents from potential exposure to the coronavirus. Washington National Guardsmen are authorized to be there until March 17.

“They’re our manpower that’s assembling all those boxes,” Mathias said. “We couldn’t do it without the National Guard.”

More clients has meant more food to distribute.

Initially, before the pandemic, there were more donations with the Grocery Rescue Program. Many grocery store products that were close to their expiration dates would be donated to the Food Bank.

When COVID-19 hit and the restaurants closed, people started going to grocery stores more, so there wasn’t enough food coming from that source.

But food that was meant to go to restaurants wasn’t getting purchased. Milk was getting dumped and other food wasted. A program began called Farmers to Families Food Box Program, where the USDA purchased that food and distributed it to people who couldn’t afford to go to the store.

Mathias said they could not have kept up with demand without the program.

Chloe LeValley can be reached at chloelevalley@wwub.com or 509-526-8326.

Chloe LeValley covers the cities of Walla Walla and College Place as well as agriculture and the environment in the Walla Walla Valley. She is a graduate of San Francisco State University and joined the Union-Bulletin's team in October 2019.