Picture this number in your head: 106,000. That’s approximately the population of the cities of Yakima, Selah and Union Gap combined. And that’s approximately 40 percent of Yakima County’s population.

The figure also represents the minimum number of people who needed assistance with food in Yakima County last year — two out of every five.

Fortunately, with organizations like Northwest Harvest, most people have the opportunity to get the nutrition and meals they need every day.

Northwest Harvest is a food bank distributor, but not a food bank itself. It supplies food to multiple food banks and meal programs across the county. In 2018, the number of unique individuals who received food that passed through the doors of those food banks and meal programs reached 106,000. That doesn’t include people who might only receive food from the Union Gospel Mission or Salvation Army.

The idea of Northwest Harvest was launched in Seattle in the late 1960s by a group of community leaders who formed The Ecumenical Metropolitan Ministry. Their goal was to serve the area’s poor, whose biggest need was food. They did not start out serving a large percentage of the population, but that quickly changed.

Shortly after EMM formed, Boeing cut 60,000 jobs over the course of 18 months. There was an immediate need for EMM’s services. Northwest Harvest officially came into existence after that, serving the greater Puget Sound region for over two decades before expanding east in 1991 and opening a distribution center in Yakima.

The need for food bank distribution has steadily increased every year in the Valley. While it provided food to a handful of programs in the beginning, Northwest Harvest now “feeds” 22 food banks and/or meal programs in Yakima County.

Who benefits from Northwest Harvest? Of course it can be the homeless that we see on the streets most every day. But it’s also kids, neighbors and co-workers.

Consider how many people might live paycheck to paycheck, maybe having $5 left in their wallet by payday. Their family of four isn’t officially “poor” and they don’t live frivolously, but barely make ends meet. A car breaks down, the furnace needs repairs or there is a major health issue with a high insurance deductible. Any one of those things can cause average families to go hungry. And that’s why Northwest Harvest has continued to grow for nearly 30 years here in the Valley.

The majority of food is donated straight to the organization — 85 percent to 90 percent, in fact. That includes boxes and bags of groceries that the general public donates, food drives at schools and businesses as well as local farmers donating thousands of pounds of fresh fruit and vegetables each year.

It all adds up. In 2018, approximately 8.2 million pounds of food was distributed by Northwest Harvest to its partner programs.

As a nonprofit that is not government-funded, Northwest Harvest has to keep its operational costs at a minimum. It employs a staff of 10 — two in development and eight in operations. There is no possible way for a staff of that size of to sort, pack, stack or do whatever else is needed for daily distribution, so the organization has to depend on volunteers. Schools, church groups, friends and individuals all donate their time to do what is needed to get the food out.

In 2018, Northwest Harvest logged roughly 8,500 volunteer hours, equating to an average of 33 hours per day, every weekday of the year.

Sheri Bissell, community engagement manager for the Central Washington office, said it’s wonderful that Northwest Harvest receives so much from the community week in and week out. But, she said, the demand continues to grow every year.

When asked if there are times assistance is needed more than others, she said, “Hunger knows no season. I didn’t make up that quote, but it’s pretty universal and true.”

“The holidays are when people think about it the most because they are already in the giving spirit,” she said. “Summer is difficult, though, because kids are home and don’t all have schools to rely on for meals every day.”

She said grants help when giving drops off. Between 10 percent and 15 percent of what Northwest Harvest gives out is purchased by the organization with funds received from grants or donations. It buys in bulk, generally focusing on five staples; rice, beans, pasta, oats and tomato sauce. They are inexpensive and can fill empty bellies quickly and easily.

Bissell said the organization is always in need of three things: “Food, funds and time — we need all of those. People give what they can of those three. It’s not the same for everyone.”

There is a fourth item she didn’t mention. It represents a bit of a crossover of the three, but it is unique. It’s the businesses that help in spreading the word about hunger. Many local grocery stores host food drives throughout the year, and one even hosted a turkey bowling event with local media talent and elected officials.

Northwest Harvest hosts one fundraiser of its own: Carve Out Hunger. Most of the local media outlets have teams to carve pumpkins and celebrate with the community. Tickets should still be available at the time of this publication for the Oct. 12 event. Each ticket provides enough food for more than 220 meals.