Visiting the FISH food bank in Edgewood is almost like visiting the grocery store.
Upon arrival, those in need of food assistance receive a grocery cart and shop aisles labeled with protein, soups, fruits and vegetables, personal care and more for items that best suit their families.
FISH Food Banks of Pierce County operate on this self-serve model so that people feel comfortable when they stop by, said Kate Wright, manager of the Edgewood location at Mountain View Lutheran Church, 3607 122nd Avenue E.
“We try to normalize it as much as possible so that they feel happy when they’re here,” said Wright, who added that welcoming visitors is like welcoming guests into her home.
The “oldest and largest food bank network in Pierce County,” FISH operates seven food banks and a mobile food truck and opened the Edgewood location in 2003. In 2015, the food bank served more than 54,000 individuals and distributed just shy of one million pounds of food. Monthly, the location sees 4,500 unduplicated individuals, with about 1,500 from Puyallup zip codes. The South Hill FISH location also helps many in the Puyallup area.
While there’s an emphasis on the working poor, FISH serves anyone in Pierce County in need of food assistance. With each stop, families of any size can get as much food to last them for three meals a day for three days, but clients can return if additional help is needed.
“We don’t turn anyone away,” said Sue Potter, executive director of FISH. “If you’re hungry, we’ll serve you.”
We try to think around seasons, especially during the winter, and how (clients) can combine ingredients so they can make the most of their food.
Sue Potter, executive director of of FISH Food Banks
The food bank’s self-service model is meant to support FISH’s mission, said Potter, to “provide nutritious food to people in need with compassion, dignity and respect.”
“Having a nutritionally balanced diet goes hand in hand with dignity and respect,” Potter said, adding that sometimes the food that gets donated isn’t always fresh produce and vegetables.
To balance out diets, FISH has a $400,000 budget dedicated to healthy and shelf-stable foods.
“We scour the markets for the best price,” Potter said. “That allows us to make sure we have a balanced selection and the shelves are always stocked. We’re very proud of that and it does make us different.”
One item that Potter always makes sure the food banks have is eggs, and a large portion of the budget is spent on eggs.
“Eggs are an ingredient, a meal, a protein, a snack,” Potter said. “We always have eggs.”
Along with a healthy selection of food, the staff at FISH maintains the mission of “dignity and respect” by considering how individuals can get the best use of their items.
“We try to think around seasons, especially during the winter, and how (clients) can combine ingredients so they can make the most of their food,” Potter said.
About once or twice every month, Washington State University’s Food $ense Program at its Research and Extension Center in Puyallup will stop by at the Edgewood food bank to provide tastings and recipes for visitors in Costco-like demonstrations.
“It helps with the sense of community,” Potter said. “It all goes back to providing food with dignity and respect.”
54,721 clients served in 2015
980,458 pounds of food distributed
Cleanliness is important to that mission as well, said Potter, who won’t let even packaged food touch the floor.
“We take food safety very seriously,” she said. “That includes temperature control and making sure that food is packaged correctly.”
Even with the mission to foster normalcy for the their visitors by allowing families of any size to stop by once a week — a common shopping schedule, Potter said — the staff is aware of the realities of clients.
Children make up 40 percent of FISH clients, while people 55 and older are the fastest growing demographic that FISH services.
“More seniors are retiring every day,” said Lauren Adler, senior manager of grants and public relations at FISH. “These are people saying, ‘I will never depend on someone else.’ I had this one woman call me (and) her voice started to crack and she said, ‘We’ve never done this before. I thought we had everything planned for our retirement.’”
Some stories are hard to hear, according to staff members, but they focus on what they can do to help.
Wright recounted a story about a mother and two teen daughters who were living out of their car and came in for one daughter’s birthday.
“Sure enough, we had cupcakes,” Wright said. “The whole place sang her happy birthday.”
“When people come to a food bank, they’re hitting their lowest point,” added Potter. “We’re about providing them with choices, with a friendly atmosphere—with compassion, dignity and respect.”
FISH’s Edgewood location is open from 3:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. on Thursdays and 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays. To learn more about FISH, visit fishfoodbanks.org.