Our Place food bank offers choices for guests
Each day that Our Place food bank is open, Tracie Swanson says she sees and serves Jesus as Jesus comes down the line of tables filled with food for hungry individuals and families.
The tables are set up in the parking lot, under tents if necessary, outside Our Place Community Outreach at 1509 W. College Ave. in West Central Spokane.
In March 2020, Our Place took their food bank outside, and continued to offer a free shopping opportunity for people to select from a choice of food.
"Since then, we only closed one day for smoke, one day because it was too cold and one day because it was 106 degrees," said Tracie, the part-time executive director for 14 years.
"We make sure the most vulnerable members of the community are not overlooked, judged or discriminated against but treated with dignity and respect as they choose food to feed their families," she said.
Tracie, staff and volunteers sense people's fear, depression and uncertainty about the future with rising costs for rent, utilities and food. Many of those helping know fear and uncertainty because they have been on the other side of the tables, picking up food rather than keeping their tables supplied and answering questions about how to use jicama or artichokes.
One day there was an oversupply of bananas, so volunteers made sure people took as many as they wanted. Another day there were few tomatoes, so they limited them to two per person.
"We are seeing more Afghan refugees and other immigrants, seniors on fixed incomes, and intergenerational families with aunts, uncles, cousins, parents, children and grandparents living in one household because of the outrageous rents," Tracie said.
"Prices are going up and up," she said, "so people are happy when Second Harvest and Northwest Harvest provide cases of tuna, peanut butter, grape jelly, scalloped potatoes, refried beans, black beans or other canned goods we can give people."
The husband of development director Kat Hartsell stocks shelves at a grocery store and keeps them informed on what items are hard to get.
Tracie appreciates Our Place's 35-year history of staff and volunteers giving people hope by offering a bounty of food to feed their families.
Since COVID, Our Place's outdoor food distribution has been open from 4 to 6 p.m., Wednesdays and 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., Thursdays.
Samples of food items sit at the check-in desk so people can see the items and volunteers can explain what they are.
"It helps overcome language barriers," Tracie said.
Clothing, blankets, bedding, sleeping bags and other household items are available inside, depending on donations.
The clothing bank, which includes men's clothing, is open for 15-minute periods to five people wearing masks during food bank hours.
Laundry facilities are available on a first-come, first-served basis 9:30 to 11:15 a.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays, and 2 to 4:30 p.m., Wednesdays.
"We are low barrier, meaning we do not ask many questions and receive people from the entire community," she said. "We only have boundaries for hygiene products—like toothbrushes, toothpaste, toilet paper and items purchased with grants. Anyone can pick up feminine hygiene items and diapers."
Each day 25 to 30 of Our Place's 80 volunteers help set up the tables, keep food supplied and then put the tables away. Tuesdays, staff and volunteers come in to do administrative work and restock.
Donations are received during office hours, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Tuesdays and Thursdays, and 2 to 6 p.m., Wednesdays.
When Our Place is closed, they keep 21 crates stacked three high in a covered area outside the front doors stocked with food as their own Little Pantry. It is used by homeless people and those needing food other days of the week, as well as by people stocking their own Little Pantries, which are like Little Libraries in neighborhoods.
Our Place also invites those who have Little Pantries to come by at the end of the food distributions on Wednesdays and Thursdays to pick up extra food.
Volunteers and staff guide people who come to the food bank to other resources and services.
Previously, Our Place served about 1,000 a month. Now it serves 3,000 to 5,000 a month. On Wednesdays about 300 come and Thursdays about 500.
Much food is supplied from Second Harvest, Northwest Harvest and grocery rescue twice a week from My Fresh Basket, Safeway and Natural Grocers.
They offer yogurt, dairy, bread, mac and cheese, canned goods, produce and proteins, soup, chili and peanut butter.
In 2020-2021, the program provided 611,536 pounds of food, 29,034 articles of clothing, 24,020 hygiene products, 179 loads of laundry and 1,053 household items.
Our Place also provides bus passes and utility assistance.
This year their budget jumped from $205,000 in 2018-19 to $280,000 to meet rising costs.
"We have to raise more funds to serve more people," she said. "Fortunately, we own the building."
Benedictine Sister Meg Sass, who helped canvas the neighborhood and recruited churches to start Our Place in 1987, will speak at the 2022 Stage Lights Fundraiser at 6 p.m., Thursday, June 23, at Salem Lutheran Church, 1428 W. Broadway.
Now living at the Monastery of St. Gertrude in Cottonwood, Idaho, Sr. Meg will reflect on the history of the program, started as an ecumenical ministry drawing together churches to pool their resources and serve the community.
Our Place continues to receive the support of community churches, including St. Augustine, St. Joseph on Dean and Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic; Emmanuel, Westminster and Knox Presbyterian; Salem Lutheran, Christ Central, St. John's Episcopal Cathedral and the Sisters of the Holy Names.
Faith communities provide not only financial support, but also board members and volunteers.
The largest support is from grants, and second largest from individuals. Other sources include other churches, organizations and the board fundraiser.
"Church support provides the structure to keep us going," Tracie said.
While the churches are still integral, in 2018 the organization changed its name from Our Place Community Ministries to Our Place Community Outreach.
"We are more about outreach services than ministry," she said.
"From the beginning, staff and volunteers gathered for prayer at the start of each day," she said. "For a while, we got away from that, but now are back to praying."
"Few nonprofits continue as long as we have," continued Tracie, who earned a degree in journalism in 1993 from the University of Idaho. "In recent years, we have been more effective at making our presence known in the community through Facebook and other means."
At a recent conference of 500 nonprofit leaders in Yakima, the speaker asked how many had been with their nonprofit for two years and five years. Many raised their hands. She was among nine who had been executive directors more than 10 years.
"There is high burnout because of the stress among those working in social services," said Tracie, explaining that she works part time, so she has time off with her family to rejuvenate.