Matt Driscoll

In Bonney Lake, a food bank is hoping the community steps up to save it before it’s too late

“We don’t cry wolf. When we’re hurting, we ask.”

Bonney Lake Food Bank seeks financial donations, volunteers and larger space as community need continues to grow.
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Bonney Lake Food Bank seeks financial donations, volunteers and larger space as community need continues to grow.

A big, single tear ran down Stew Bowen’s weathered, red face.

“I went to bed hungry as a kid. I know what that feels like. I know what it feels like not to have food to feed your own kids,” said Bowen, a former chaplain at the Pierce County Jail.

“I look in the eyes of some of these people, and I see that fear,” Bowen added, standing next to a pallet of donations at the Bonney Lake Food Bank, his emotions temporarily overcoming him. “I do my best to make sure nobody goes to bed hungry at night.”

For the last decade, Bowen, 65, has been the executive director of the Bonney Lake Food Bank. Every week, he sees families from far and wide arrive at the food bank, reliant on the help it provides.

It’s here, in a nondescript, too-small building that’s bursting at the seams — not far from Lake Tapps, a deli and a day spa — that Bowen works to fill what he describes as a “massive need” in the community.

Bowen is not one to “cry wolf,” he told me, but the situation is dire. Over the last year, financial donations have plummeted, leaving the food bank with an uncertain future.

If it’s to survive, the food bank needs donations, volunteers and — ultimately — a new, bigger building, he said.

Right now, Bowen said, things don’t look good.

That’s why he’s asking the community for help — in a place where, for any number of reasons, that “massive need” often goes unnoticed.

The bedroom community of Bonney Lake might be best known for big homes by the lake and visible affluence, but desperation and poverty are all around, Bowen said. He sees it in families “hiding in their big homes with nothing to eat,” and he encounters it four days a week, every week, in the people who line up at the food bank’s door.

Whether the greater community realizes it or not, losing the Bonney Lake Food Bank would be a substantial blow

The nonprofit serves more than 1,000 families a month, according to Bowen, and more than 3,000 mouths. There are a cast of regulars, and “new faces that show up every week,” he said.

Each month, it also helps feed more than 800 kids in the Bonney Lake School District. The children — who are identified with the help of local school counselors — receive a sack of food in their backpacks each Friday to help get them through the weekend.

Jenson Isham is a 36-year-old Bonney Lake Food Bank board member who has lived in the Bonney Lake area since 2017. What Isham’s seen in his short time working and volunteering at the food bank has been eye opening.

“There are a lot of people who don’t even realize Bonney Lake has a food bank,” Isham said. “A lot of the people I talk to … once they realize there is a food bank, they’re extremely surprised.”

“There are a lot of people in the community — that I’ve seen when I’m volunteering here — that are people who are at my kids’ soccer games,” Isham added. “I think that sometimes it’s close, month to month for them.”

Annually, the Bonney Lake Food bank has an operating budget of roughly $140,000, Isham said. That money pays for three part-time employees, and most of the rest goes to food. The city donates the building, as well as the utilities.

All of the money that it takes to fund the food bank comes from financial contributions, largely from small, individual donors.

Since 2017, Isham said, they’ve decreased across the board by 38 percent.

“Dire might be a good word for it,” Isham said when discussing the drop-off. “When you look at a 38-percent decline in donations, but the need only continues to grow in the community.”

What does need in Bonney Lake look like?

Isham said he comes in all shapes and sizes. The food bank serves families in extreme poverty and the homeless but also folks many might not expect.

As an example, Isham recalled a recent experience during the government shutdown. A man came in wearing his Transportation Security Administration (TSA) uniform, he said.

“He’s kind of walking around in a daze, and I realize he’s never been to a food bank,” Isham recalled. “He’s here for food, because he’s kind of on the edge that way.”

Whether people see it or not, it’s an edge that many in Bonney Lake live on, Isham said.

And if things don’t improve?

“The need is much larger than what we’re serving,” Bowen said. “A lot of these people are going to be desperate. … There’s going to be a lot of hungry people.”

On Thursday, Bowen was still doing his best to make sure no one went hungry that night, buzzing around the food bank parking lot on a forklift and helping to stack boxes and make sure things were in order for when the doors opened.

“We’ve got about six months’ worth of money in the bank,” Bowen said bluntly, after a long pause, when asked about the future.

“If things don’t change, we won’t be around in a year,” he added.

He’s hoping the community won’t let that happen.

Here’s hoping he’s right.

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.