From Farm to Food Bank
A look inside the Pike Market Food Bank
STORY BY MEGAN HILL
PHOTOS BY NOAH FORBES
“And it’s remarkable, I think, for reasons people don’t understand when they come to the market. They see the fish flying and the flowers and the great food, but what they don’t know about so much is the market’s commitment to serving the downtown community.”
“Whoever decided to put a food bank in the Pike Place Market was a genius.”
In 2015, the Pike Market Food Bank served an average of 746 households each week, with an average of 300 walk-in clients on every distribution day: Tuesdays and Thursdays year round.
”But when I walk through our line, I also wonder, ‘How would this look to me if I didn’t have adequate cooking facilities or if I had no cooking facilities at all?’”
It’s 9 a.m. on a Tuesday morning in late August, and Pike Place Market is yawning to life. The crush of humanity that overtakes the market every day at the height of the summer tourist season hasn’t happened yet.
Vendors are arranging rows of produce and flowers and fish, and the craftspeople are laying out their wares ahead of the onslaught. And Peter Petrovich, whose bare head and broad shoulders have earned him the nickname “Mr. Clean,” is leading a handful of volunteers through the market with hand trucks and cardboard boxes to collect items for the Pike Market Food Bank, where Peter is the assistant manager.
Over the course of the next half hour, they’ll stop at produce stands like Sosio’s Fruit & Produce and Corner Produce and Frank’s Quality Produce, picking up slightly bruised fruit and vegetables. Then, they’ll collect bags of day-old baked goods and various meat, cheese, and prepared food from businesses like Le Panier, Pear Delicatessen, and Piroshky Piroshky.
They’re all items that would otherwise be discarded because they aren’t quite perfect enough to sell, but are still good enough to eat. Peter and the volunteers will haul these items — along with scores more from the market’s array of food-related vendors collected on other days — down to the fifth floor of the market’s underground Public Market Parking Garage, where there’s already a long line of people waiting for the food bank to open at 10 a.m.
When it does open, the food bank doles out portions of food that include dry goods, meat, dairy, baked goods, canned food, and produce.
The Pike Market Food Bank, which started as the Downtown Food Bank in 1979, has operated at Seattle’s favorite tourist attraction since 1981. And it’s part of a range of social services that most people visiting the market have no idea exist.
“The market is a pretty remarkable thing,” says Brian Anderson, the food bank’s manager. “And it’s remarkable, I think, for reasons people don’t understand when they come to the market. They see the fish flying and the flowers and the great food, but what they don’t know about so much is the market’s commitment to serving the downtown community. And we really have an integrated social service network down here.”
That integrated social service network includes the food bank and its 501(c)(3) fiscal sponsor, Pike Market Senior Center, which serves adults 55 and older, many of whom are struggling with poverty and related issues of hunger, poor health, and social isolation. Thus, this particular senior center provides traditional activities, such as classes and socialization opportunities, along with additional human services and access to social workers who can connect them with even more resources and assistance.
And there’s more: Neighborcare Health clinic provides primary health care services on a sliding scale; Pike Market Child Care and Preschool, one of the first programs in downtown Seattle to provide child care to low-income families; Heritage House at the Market, an assisted living facility; and affordable housing units for more than 450 residents.
All of this means that the food bank — as is the case for each individual service — is able to refer its clients to a variety of services, all of which are just a few steps from where they’re picking up groceries.
The food bank benefits tremendously from its neighboring vendors, who stock its shelves with roughly half of all the food given out.
“Whoever decided to put a food bank in the Pike Place Market was a genius,” Brian says. He personally visits the market’s bakeries — like Three Girls, Seattle Bagel Bakery, and Honest Biscuits — first thing every morning to get their day-old items. “We get hundreds of pounds every week,” he says.
Then there’s the second morning-market pick-up run, which Peter undertakes with volunteers, to visit the delis and produce stands. This relationship has existed for so long that every vendor is ready with boxes or bags of giveaways by the time Peter shows up.
When I visit, everyone on staff at the food bank is thrilled about a recent donation from Sosio’s — some 1,880 pounds of the stand’s “Oh My God” peaches.
“They’re the best peaches you’ll ever eat,” Brian says. “The owners, Mike and Alan, test the peaches when they come in to make sure they’re Oh-My-God quality. And if they’re not, they donate the peaches to the food bank. With this recent donation, we’ve been going crazy down here giving away all these lovely peaches.”
In 2015, Brian says the food bank picked up “a little north of 98,000 pounds of food” just from the market.
While a lot of food banks strive to have fresh food on hand to complement the non-perishable items, that staggering amount of fresh food is unique to the Pike Market Food Bank. “It’s a huge deal and a huge part of who we are that we have a considerable amount of fresh produce all the time,” Brian says. “And it’s because we operate in the market.”
The other half of the inventory is sourced from three additional farmers markets, along with grocery stores and other donation pipelines. The Pike Market Food Bank works with Northwest Harvest and Food Lifeline, which recently inked a contract with area Safeway stores to bring in a broader array of food items. Safeway has long been donating bread and pastries, but Food Lifeline can now source from all of the grocery chain’s departments.
“Now we’re getting additional fresh produce, meats, deli items, dairy items — you name it,” says Brian, who has run the food bank since October 2013. “And it’s made a huge difference.”
All of that food in 2015 served an average of 746 households each week, with an average of 300 walk-in clients on every distribution day: Tuesdays and Thursdays year round. Clients can come in on either day, though the food bank asks that they come just once a week per household so that everyone’s needs can be met.
Brian says that those numbers take into account the dramatic swings in client numbers between the beginning of the month and the end, when the food bank sees far more people in need because resources like paychecks and food stamps often don’t last through an entire month.
The Pike Market Food Bank also does a limited number of home deliveries — 88, currently — mostly to homebound seniors who live in affordable housing in the downtown core.
The food bank’s client population trends older than most of the other food banks in Seattle, Brian says. Clients aged 55 and up make up nearly 60 percent of the clientele, which hails from the 98101, 98104, and 98121 ZIP codes.
“Because that includes the International District, we have a very sizeable Asian population who shops here,” Brian says. “And a lot of those folks are older and living on fixed income, relying on us for their supplemental nutrition.”
Brian is always looking for ways to improve the services the food bank offers, and one aspect that stands out to him is the needs of Seattle’s burgeoning homeless population. This year’s annual One Night Count, which took place in January and is led by the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, tallied 4,505 men, women, and children without shelter throughout the county, representing a 19 percent increase over the previous year. In Seattle, that crisis led Mayor Ed Murray to declare a state of emergency in an effort to lay out a long-term plan for addressing the problem.
For Brian, this vulnerable population deserves special consideration and is a growing opportunity for the food bank.
“When I walk through our line, I see a lot of great stuff,” he says. “We have chicken and eggs and a lot of produce and so much more. But when I walk through our line, I also wonder, ‘How would this look to me if I didn’t have adequate cooking facilities or if I had no cooking facilities at all?’ So, what can we do to address that in terms of additional purchases, ready-made food partners, and that sort of thing.”
Brian says about 15 percent of the people served by the food bank are homeless. “And the question in the back of my mind is, ‘What would that percentage be if I did a better job serving more of the homeless? Would it be a lot bigger than 15 percent? I suspect it would.”
Megan Hill is a freelance writer specializing in food, travel, and the outdoors. She also acts as Edible Seattle’s social media manager.