National Guard distributes food in April 2020

Washington National Guard Master Sgt. Eric Baillie places a box of food into a vehicle as Capt. Shane Lucey helps out during an April 2020 food distribution event by Helping Hands. The nonprofit has come to rely on National Guard help for distribution.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, the Helping Hands Solution Center continues to offer food assistance to a record-breaking number of Skagit County residents.

Rebecca Larsen, the nonprofit’s executive director, said the number of households served in June increased 160% over May, which was already a record month for the county’s largest food bank.

“Our numbers were insanely high,” she said.

Director of Development Nichole Long said the nonprofit has come to rely on support from the National Guard, which has been filling a need left vacant by volunteers since April.

Thirty-four corpsmen per day have been allocated to transport and distribute food at several of the rural food banks that Helping Hands supports, like the one in Marblemount.

“If we lose the National Guard, it puts at risk a lot of these smaller food banks we’re supporting,” Long said.

She said the National Guard has requested to stay through September, but it’s unclear if the request will be granted — or whether state or federal funds can be used to pay for them.

Long said federal emergency aid, promised in April, should start arriving in the next couple weeks.

And while Larsen said this aid is welcome, she said she doesn’t know what or how much Helping Hands will receive, making plans for the rest of the month difficult.

“I know it’s coming, but we don’t know when or how much,” she said.

She said Helping Hands is receiving 800 boxes of food per week from Food Lifeline, a Washington NGO that supplies food banks. While each is designed to feed a family of four for the week, she said the offering doesn’t quite meet the food bank’s nutritional standards, and her staff is adding things like bread, dairy and eggs to supplement.

However, with expanded unemployment benefits from the federal CARES Act set to expire at the end of July, Long said her team is expecting to see an increase in families seeking food assistance.

“The need is anticipated to really explode,” she said.

Larsen said she was told in a meeting with the state Department of Agriculture to plan to stockpile food in anticipation of the end of these benefits, something that’s difficult during a time of unprecedented need.

Because of its access to donations and inexpensive bulk food, Long said the nonprofit can normally feed a family of four on about $2 a week. In April, when many of its avenues for food dried up, Helping Hands was paying about $10 per family per week. Now, costs have fallen to about $4.50 per family per week, Larsen said. That’s an improvement over the beginning of the pandemic, but still much 2.5 times higher than budgeted.

Larsen said the nonprofit expended its entire 2020 food budget in the first six months of the year.

At the same time, however, 675 new donors have contributed in the last several months, which has been essential in keeping the nonprofit running, she said.

Long said Helping Hands is planning to partner with Skagit Transit and the owners of the Cascade Mall property to host a food drive on Aug. 8, but that depends on whether Skagit County reaches Phase 3 of the governor’s plan to reopen, which allows for larger gatherings.

— Reporter Brandon Stone: bstone@skagitpublishing.com, 360-416-2112, Twitter: @Brandon_SVH

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