Story submitted by WSC AmeriCorps member Mary Kate Cartmill, serving at Rainier Valley Food Bank
Food insecurity. Food justice. Food access.
These terms were introduced to me in a humanities class in college four years ago. Our conversations about global poverty, climate change, and agricultural practices were rooted in scientific articles and controversial documentaries. We wrote papers comparing different political viewpoints on government assistance programs. We constructed skeletal frameworks for imaginary grassroots programs to address localized hunger in far-away communities. We even briefly stepped outside the classroom to see hunger ‘first-hand’ at a local food bank before hurrying back to write down our reflections and suggestions for improvement. This class sparked an interest in global health and food security, but I graduated without a comprehensive view of what these issues looked like on the ground and in our communities. In order to explore these topics further – while also dedicating my time to helping others – I accepted a position through the Washington Service Corps.
My name is Mary Kate Cartmill and I’m the Food Foundations Coordinator at Rainier Valley Food Bank in southeast Seattle. I am responsible for running our home food delivery program that provides weekly groceries to [over] 160 senior and disabled individuals who cannot access our services otherwise. I also coordinate volunteers and make sure things run smoothly as we distribute food to over 1,000 individuals each week.
One of my service challenges is to figure out how to best meet the needs of our senior and disabled guests. This population experiences an additional set of barriers to accessing healthy, nutritious food including limited mobility, cognitive disabilities, and/or isolation. These individuals can’t physically access our services at the food bank but are still experiencing hunger in some capacity. Since starting my position [in September], I have increased our home food delivery program from 153 households to 167 households. That means 17 additional individuals now have access to fresh, high quality food on a weekly basis. It also means that a total of 253 individuals who may be experiencing symptoms of isolation…are able to see a friendly face each week when their groceries are delivered.
But as I’ve learned in the past four months, numbers don’t tell the whole story of how service really impacts a community. For example, during Thanksgiving we were fortunate enough to offer turkeys to all 167 of our home food delivery recipients. As you can imagine, coordinating the delivery of that many turkeys was quite a production and required extensive planning on our end. Some individuals wanted turkeys, some wanted our usual offerings, and some would be away for the holidays…By the end of the week, I was exhausted and burned out from the whole process. The next week, however, I received a personal letter from a home food delivery recipient. The message simply said, “Thank you so much for making this the best Thanksgiving I can remember. You really made my day.” It reminded me of the importance that food holds in our celebrations and traditions. The holidays are a time when families gather together, give thanks, and celebrate – more often than not – around a shared meal. But for those who aren’t able to provide food for themselves or their families, it can also be a very stressful time. Being able to alleviate some of that pressure for our food guests is an honor, especially during the holidays, and I’m very grateful to have experienced it first-hand.
While I’m only four months into my term of service, I’m already developing new perspectives and ideas on what hunger looks like and how to best address it in a diverse community. It presents itself in many ways and is rarely the sad faces you see on late night commercials. It looks like my new neighbors, talks like the stranger I traded recent best-reads with on the bus, and walks like the kids I see running home from school on Friday. It waxes and wanes for some and is a constant pressure for others. There is no universal cause of hunger and, in turn, no universal solution. While debates, studies, and research assignments are critical to laying the groundwork, witnessing it first-hand is essential to understanding the intricacies of food insecurity.