In the wake of the pandemic, families across Southwest Washington still struggle to make ends meet. Often that means having to decide between paying bills and buying food. At the same time, the small nonprofit organizations that provide critical support, services and resources to the community are stretched thin by spiking demand.
As of 2020, 9.9% of Clark County’s population (47,630 people) was facing food insecurity. In Cowlitz County, 13.5% of the population (14,600 people) was food insecure and in Wahkiakum County 11.4% was food insecure (490 people).
The COVID-19 pandemic put a strain on already limited social services, including the distribution of food to our region’s most vulnerable households. Southwest Washington residents struggle to make ends meet, facing skyrocketing inflation. Rising food, gas and housing costs put additional strain on individuals and families.
Compounding the issue, volunteers that help keep food banks running are in short supply. “In the early part of the pandemic, we were desperate for volunteers to help get food out into the hands of those that needed it. Many of the volunteers that serve in food banks, pantries and meal programs are over 60 years of age and thus in the high-risk category for COVID-19. Those older volunteers stepped away from service to minimize their risks and have chosen not to return, leaving many food programs strained for help at their sites,” said Tammy Davies of Lower Columbia Community Action Program (CAP).
In response, Workforce Southwest Washington (WSW) and the Washington State Department of Commerce began a partnership in 2021 to increase the capacity of food distribution centers across the region. The program places interns with local food distribution centers, helping individuals gain skills and work experience and at the same time building much needed capacity at food banks and pantries to feed our community.
“The investment increases economic opportunity for employees placed at foodbanks and families served through the sites. Partnerships with community-based organizations and nonprofits across Clark, Cowlitz and Wahkiakum counties enable our local workforce development system to holistically serve families and individuals while supporting local business recovery and growth,” said Miriam Halliday, Chief Executive Officer of Workforce Southwest Washington.
Food Distribution Partnership Sites
Clark County Food Bank
Lower Columbia Community Action Program
FISH of Vancouver
The program includes partners at WorkSource in Vancouver and Kelso, and Southwest Washington food distribution centers. WorkSource screens job seekers and matches them at one of the food distribution centers in a paid internship.
Since the start of the program, 47 people have participated at food distribution sites, increasing capacity in a time of critical need. After completing their internship and gaining valuable transferrable job skills, all program participants were subsequently hired by companies including PeaceHealth, SEH America, Lower Columbia College, the United States Postal Services and others across Southwest Washington.
Executive Director of FISH of Vancouver, James Fitzgerald noted that at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, FISH saw fewer customers. As the pandemic wore on, numbers began to increase. In 2023, the FISH Vancouver pantry center has 120 – 140 families visit daily.
“High demand has become typical at FISH and other food distribution sites as Clark County residents bear the impacts of inflation. Food prices are up 10.6% nationwide from last year, according to the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index. Prices of cereal and bakery products, as well as dairy and related products, increased 16.4% over the year. These price increases along with high gas, rent and other living costs have caused FISH to see needs like never before.”
WorkSource placed an intern with FISH of Vancouver through the food distribution site partnership. Fitzgerald credits their intern with helping them stay on top of increasing demands.
Lower Columbia Community Action Program (CAP) also hosted interns through the program. Two interns worked in the warehouse, assembling food boxes for monthly food distribution. Two interns worked in Senior Nutrition, making and packing meals, maintaining inventory and delivery food to local seniors.
The Clark County Food Bank also provides food to Next to serve youth that are out of school and not working. Next and the Clark County Food Bank partner to host cooking classes for young adults.
Partnerships with food distribution nonprofits across Southwest Washington are key to creating a regional economy where all people can build self-sufficiency and advance in their careers. The program empowers interns to build their skills, allows families to access resource integral to survival and builds capacity for nonprofit organizations through demanding times.
Investments in our community are the core of Workforce Southwest Washington’s work. We invest in programs that partner with our region’s businesses and community, and we hope you will join us!
Businesses interested in how Workforce Southwest Washington can help you recruit and retain workers, build quality jobs and assist with other business workforce needs, contact Darcy Hoffman, Director of Business Services at email@example.com or 360.608.4949 or submit a request and we’ll contact you.
WorkSource Vancouver and Kelso offer valuable career and support services to job seekers in Southwest Washington. If you are looking for an internship or need assistance with finding a job or accessing other career services, contact WorkSource Vancouver at 360.735.5000 or WorkSource in Kelso at 360.577.2250 or visit www.worksourceswwa.com.
The Clark County Food Bank network lists free food resources across the county, including food pantries, hot meal sites and school pantries.
Cowlitz and Wahkiakum County
Lower Columbia Community Action Program provides a list of hot meal sites and food pantries across Cowlitz and Wahkiakum counties.