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Food bank fueled by volunteers

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The Fife Food Bank is located behind the St. Martin of Tours Catholic Church on 54th Ave East. The building is small and not easily seen from the road. Yet in this small building, a space much too small for what they’re using it for, Fred and Mary Mitchell have dedicated their free time and energy to give back to their community.

Fred Mitchell, a retiree from Boeing and a regular attendee at St. Martin of Tours, remembered how the opportunity just fell into his lap one day. “A fellow from the church ran this place for several years,” recalled Mitchell, “and he got to be 92 years old. And he pulled me in one day and he said, ‘Hey, I need some help.’ And I said, ‘well okay, I’ll help you.’ And the first thing I know, he says, ‘Fred, it’s time for me to leave. You got to take this over.’” After some careful coaxing from his wife Mary, the Mitchells have done just that and have been supervising the food bank ever since.

“Everybody has to eat,” explained Mitchell of his decision to take on the cause. “And so to me, there should be nobody who goes hungry. Everybody’s got all kinds of other problems and other things, but to me, if you’re hungry, there’s nothing else you’re going to think about, nothing else that overcomes your hunger. You can try to get a job and everything, but if you’re hungry, all you’re thinking about is that hunger. That is, in the hierarchy of needs, number one as far as I’m concerned. You have to be fed, and then you have a chance of going on and doing something. But if you’re hungry, you’re going to do all kinds of crazy things. And I think we owe it to our people no matter what to make sure they’re fed.”

A member of the Emergency Food Network of Pierce County, Fife Food Bank served almost 7,000 clients in 2016, including almost 2,000 families. This equates to about 3,100 volunteer hours, 92,000 pounds of food, and $25,000 worth of goods that had to be purchased to make it all work.
“This is a logistics nightmare,” Mitchell said with a laugh. “We have practically no space, so we’re moving things around. It’s a constant movement of food through this place. We try not to live here, but we’re down here quite a bit.”

The Fife Food Bank relies heavily on the volunteers that dedicate thousands of hours to keep it running. Their passion and dedication to helping out never ceases to amaze Mitchell.

“It’s their way to give back to the community,” he said of his fellow volunteers. “They say they’re going to be here Monday morning at 8:00, they’re here Monday morning at 8:00. And I have to tell them [at the end of the day], hey, you need to go home. These guys are so darned dedicated.”

The Mitchell’s typical Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at the food bank begins with the phone ringing at 9:00 in the morning. Clients call to schedule appointments to pick up food later on in the day. During those conversations, volunteers learn about the client’s living conditions, such as access to refrigeration or food allergies. As volunteers schedule the times, they start building a list of food items to service the client. More volunteers show up shortly after to help organize the food into bags. At noon, the volunteers hand out those bags as the clients come by to pick them up. When the day is over, work for the next load of groceries starts. More food gets dropped off, shelves must be restocked, and the inventory process begins once more.

The Fife Food Bank gets an allocation of funds from the EFN every year, but Mitchell estimates it only buys about two months’ worth of food for their clients. Mitchell attributes much of the food bank’s success to the participation within the community beyond what the EFN provides. “We’re sponsored by the church,” Mitchell said, “but we’re the community food bank. So people who know us in the Fife area will come up and just hand you $50 or $10, or $100 from time to time. It’s really great. So we’re also kind of community sponsored.”

Emergency Food Network estimates that there are 1.3 million visits to food banks, shelters, and meal sites within Pierce County every year, 54 percent of which are on behalf children and seniors alone. Helen McGovern-Pilant, Executive Director of the EFN, believes that this number will go up, especially for seniors. “[Senior citizens] have gone up 26 percent the last five years,” said McGovern-Pilant. “As there are 10,000 Baby Boomers turning 65 each day, we know that number will continue to grow. With the potential of Social Security and Medicare cuts looming, it is daunting.  This population has limited transportation, diet restrictions, and an inability to increase their income.”

Yet regardless of logistics, a tight budget, and the reliance of their community to keep it going, Fred Mitchell and team continue to help feed the hungry one meal at a time.
“We still have a huge population who are on the very edge,” said Mitchell. “We want to make sure nobody goes hungry.”

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