COVID-19

Amid a record spike in new COVID-19 cases, staff at the Helping Hands Solutions Center are bracing for a difficult winter.

In a normal year, the county’s largest food bank would be preparing to serve about 1,300 families during the Thanksgiving holiday. Now, Executive Director Rebecca Larsen said that number is likely to be between 6,000 and 7,000.

The nonprofit has grown and changed to meet the demand presented by a growing number of food-insecure families, but the stress, growing need and limited resources are exhausting, she said.

“We’ve been holding on for 10 months,” Larsen said. “We can only hold on for so long.”

A program that provides food to families quarantining with active COVID-19 cases is growing rapidly, she said. As of Tuesday, she said 42 families were using this program, with two to three new households joining every day.

“We’re seeing a lot of staff fatigue,” Larsen said.

Meanwhile, she said government food assistance isn’t coming close to meeting demand, and staff have learned how to source food from private providers.

A recent delivery of food — food that was supposed to last a month — was gone in six days, Larsen said.

Grocers and food distribution companies have filled this gap, but Larsen said this means the nonprofit is paying significantly more than it normally would.

“Luckily, we have the community to back us up,” she said.

Donors stepped up early in the pandemic, and Larsen said Helping Hands has raised far more than it would in a normal year. However, donations are down about 50% compared to when they peaked earlier this year.

Larsen said she’s worried that more layoffs — and more demand for food assistance — are coming in light of Gov. Jay Inslee’s announcement of a four-week lockdown Sunday. Restaurants and other small businesses don’t have any promise of further help, as CARES Act financial assistance is set to expire at the end of the month.

The nonprofit had started planning to distribute food out of its Sedro-Woolley headquarters and allow volunteers to return, but Larsen said those plans have been put on hold in response to the surge in new cases.

For the foreseeable future, Helping Hands will continue to distribute food at its remote sites, including the parking lot of the Food Pavilion in Sedro-Woolley.

The National Guard has been on site since April to do the work typically done by volunteers, and its assistance is guaranteed at least through the end of the year.

Inslee requested federal funding Friday to pay for the National Guard’s continued presence statewide into 2021.

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

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