Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of individuals encountering food insecurity in this state has more than doubled, according to the Washington-based food distribution organization Northwest Harvest.

In partnership with local food banks, Northwest Harvest is tackling this pressing issue head-on and working to combat hunger in the Yakima area.

The nonprofit food distribution organization works to provide goods to over 370 food banks in the state of Washington. The program includes three distribution centers, one of which is in Yakima. Northwest Harvest’s goal is to eliminate hunger altogether while encouraging those in need to utilize food banks.

“Part of what Northwest Harvest is trying to do is remove the stigma of folks needing to have access to food items,” said Carmen Méndez, the organization’s senior manager of hunger response and distribution as well as a former member of the Yakima City Council.

In recent months, the increased hunger in the Yakima area has placed a strain on Northwest Harvest and its food bank partners.

“This year has been particularly hard for a lot of folks,” Méndez said. “But I think that especially during the holidays, it can be really hard to provide for the family.”

Many people who were once able to put food on the table for themselves and their families have lost their jobs and lack the resources to sustain themselves. Consequently, the number of people utilizing local food banks has increased in recent months.

The pandemic has also forced food banks to follow safety protocols and has limited volunteers’ ability to congregate.

In response to this crisis, Northwest Harvest has aided local food banks by providing them with personal protective equipment such as masks and hand sanitizer, ensuring the safety of both food bank volunteers and patrons. The organization has also begun packaging food items in individual boxes to limit contact with the food. Additionally, money is being raised to purchase gift cards for families in need.

Northwest Harvest’s partnering food banks, which receive food from the organization, have also made adjustments. At the Selah Food Bank, for example, all volunteers and patrons wear masks and social distancing measures are enforced.

Dave Ripperger, among those who are integral in running Selah’s food bank, finds his volunteerism extremely gratifying and encourages those in need to utilize the food bank’s services.

“I know there’s a lot of people in the shadows that don’t take advantage of us because they’re too proud or don’t like the attitude of a food bank. So we try to be as cheerful and upbeat as possible to make people feel really welcome,” Ripperger said.

For those working at Northwest Harvest and local food banks, their service to the community is a source of pride and gratification.

“It’s a very rewarding job,” Méndez said. “You just get the satisfaction of working for an organization that values you as an individual. The mission of the organization is to end hunger and so it’s really wonderful to work for an organization like this.”

In order to help ease hunger locally, Méndez recommends making a contribution to a local food bank. She also suggests volunteering at Northwest Harvest, although opportunities to do so are currently very limited due to COVID-19.

Michael Rollinger, the transportation and agricultural network manager of Northwest Harvest, emphasizes the importance of generosity and helping support those in need, especially around the holidays.

“There’s a lot of people who struggle and it’s the hardest time of the year for a lot of people. And we have the opportunity to change that somewhat for them,” Rollinger said. “It’s a blessing for them, but an even bigger blessing for me to be able to give and reach out.

“And I think that’s what draws us all to Northwest Harvest or helping in a food bank — the fact that we are able to give back.”

Natalie Keller is a sophomore at Selah High School.