Mike Cohen is the Executive Director of the Bellingham Food Bank, a hub to connect neighbors and emergency food providers with a steady supply of nutritious groceries and fresh food for the past 40 years. The Bellingham Food Bank feeds 2,300 families across Whatcom County every week.
What is the Food Bank?
Our core belief is that hunger is unacceptable. Despite that conviction and belief, we know it’s a reality. Our goal is to try to get as much good food to the families who need it as we can. We put a real emphasis on investing in activities, purchases, volunteers, and staff to fill gaps around the donated food that we get. That means the families who visit us leave with a lot of good food, averaging around 60 pounds with a retail value of about $100. Depending on the week, 60 – 70 percent of that is nutrient dense, perishable, fresh food.
We’re heavily invested in our local agricultural sector because it’s such an asset for Whatcom County. We have wholesale purchasing agreements with about a dozen farms. We glean at almost all of those farms as well. If they have food still in the field that isn’t sellable, they invite our volunteers out there to get it before they plow the field. We also encourage home gardeners to donate excess produce.
That’s really changed what the food bank is for us, and for the families who visit. The combination of those programs last year resulted in just over 300,000 pounds of fresh, local, mostly organic produce.
We have a program called Milk Money, where groups raise about $1,000 a month that is turned into a wholesale purchase through our partnership with Edaleen Dairy. They sell us the milk at cost. We’re now buying just over 900 gallons of milk a week because we heard from our customers that it’s a critical food item for them.
Anyone who wants or needs to visit the Food Bank can come. We don’t do means testing. If they need assistance and live in Bellingham, we’re here to serve them without judgment and with a lot of dignity. We know nobody wants to come to the Food Bank, so we try to make that experience as positive as we can.
Who visits the Food Bank?
Mostly families. We know from surveys we do annually that just over 35 percent of people who end up eating the food are kids. Another 15 percent are senior citizens. A lot are single moms. Just over 20 percent of the households have at least one veteran. About half the households have at least one person with a disability. Half were working, another half were unemployed or retired. They’re mostly really low income folks. The medium income the last time we did a survey was around $1,000 a month. It’s a lot of minimum wage workers, folks who can’t keep or find full-time work.
Are your customers the same people over and over, or do you see people use the Food Bank during a certain time of need in their life?
Pre-recession, the trend was more episodic use. They may have had a medical bill or a staggering car payment. They’d use us for a week or a few months then be able to move off of needing our services until the next financial crisis hit.
Since 2007, our visits have gone up dramatically. People do not seem to be able to get out of the holes they’re in. Their ability to graduate and move on seems limited, at least evidenced by continued visits.
How many people volunteer?
In a month, we get about 200 folks volunteering. Some have been volunteering for over 10 years. We usually look for at least a three month commitment. Our volunteers do invaluable pieces of work. People can’t drop in and volunteer; they’re here for a particular shift, a particular job, and if they call in sick or are on vacation, we need to get that shift filled. They’re doing essential tasks to move the food from the back of the building out to our distribution floors. They’re involved in every aspect of our organization aside from driving the forklift or looking at our budget.
Are you well staffed for volunteers, or is that an ongoing need?
We aren’t actively looking for volunteers, because we’re almost always full. We always get people leaving and coming. We don’t have a big push out, but usually if someone is interested and has flexibility in their schedule, we can fit them in.
We are recruiting groups for our new space upstairs to help us work through sorting large volumes of donated food. There wasn’t space to do that before. If there’s a cohort of people that wants to do a team-building activity once a month, or even once a year for 2-3 hours, we can train folks in 15 minutes, then they can go through and sort a bunch of food for us. We can’t make use of that food until it’s sorted. We can take people at almost any time.
How’d you get to Bellingham?
In the summer of 1999, my wife had just graduated from graduate school and we’d been in Vermont for about eight years. We didn’t have kids at that point, and thought we should take the opportunity to explore. My wife had a sister on the Olympic Peninsula, so we decided to come out to the Northwest.
Bellingham had all the things we wanted: a small college city, near water, near mountains, and close to my wife’s sister. We thought we’d stay a year, but just fell in love with the community, and decided to stay. We came out here without jobs, and didn’t know anyone.
How’d you get involved with the Food Bank?
I did the AmeriCorps VISTA program right out of college, and worked at a newly built residence for chronically homeless and mentally ill folks in Burlington, Vermont. It made me committed to not just work in the nonprofit sphere, but in the basic needs sphere, trying to work with the community to help people who are really struggling.
I grew up with an older brother who had Downs Syndrome, and the effort my parents made to keep him from being institutionalized and then get mainstreamed in schools, and have a mainstream life experience was a lesson in civics that started at a very young age. It helped build the person that I am. There’s lots of good work to do out there.
What do you love best about your job?
Working with the community. That’s a broad community: the volunteers who feel committed to the same mission, an incredibly dedicated staff, and a really generous community.
We have a really good food bank. We excel at some things that other food banks don’t. It’s all because of the support we get from Bellingham and Whatcom County. If we relied just on foundations and government support, we’d have an average food bank. We get a lot of support of all types, whether it’s local food retailers or processors who donate food, people who donate funds, time or expertise. It allows us to be what all food banks should be, which is to try to get great food to folks who need it, and access to things they deserve but can’t purchase because of their economic situation.
What is your favorite thing about Bellingham?
That’s hard. There’s a lot of favorites. I love the mountains. I love to backcountry ski, hike, and run. My best selfish Mike day is backcountry skiing with friends in the mountains.
But, the best thing about Bellingham is my family and friends. You can be in some pretty awesome places, but if you don’t get to share and experience that with people who enhance that experience, it’s not as rich.
It’s all the surrounding stuff about Bellingham, but it’s the people who are my family’s community that make it extra special.
What’s your favorite spot downtown?
Is there a particular brewery that’s a favorite?
Is there a sense of community between different organizations?
I think so. We work really hard to share resources and not duplicate work. Because it’s part of our job, we provide and share food with more than a dozen folks—whether it’s the Boys and Girls Club, YWCA, Lydia Place, the Mission, or the Rainbow Center. We see their staff and volunteers because we get them food. There’s a pretty strong connection.
I love the fact that the three biggest philanthropic organizations are now co-located at the Washington Federal building. The Whatcom Center for Philanthropy houses the Whatcom Community Foundation, the United Way of Whatcom County, and the Chuckanut Health Foundation. They’re all supportive of us, and/or the families we work with. It’s awesome they’re all in one spot, and all downtown.
I try to walk through downtown at least once a day. If not on an errand, to take a break.
Is there a new business or organization you’d most like to see in town?
Professionally speaking, any business that pays good living wage jobs. That’s the solution for the families we serve. Hunger is a condition of poverty. We’re a band aid. We’re not solving the hunger problem, but we’re hopefully helping it. We’re one of the few nonprofits whose mission doesn’t say that we’re working to put ourselves out of business. That’s a naive orientation for working in the hunger relief world. We don’t control people’s wages, cost of health insurance, and all the things that lead to poverty.
Personally, I really miss restaurants like Nimbus. Places that are really creative with food, and take a risk. I’m willing to pay that price for food I can’t cook at home. I’d like to see a place like that come back.
If you had to enroll at Western today, what would you major in?
I’d like an MBA. When volunteers or folks come through here that are thinking about what type of graduate degree to get, I steer them away from a social work degree, and toward an MBA. They’re really transferrable skills. That’d give me the most flexibility.
I don’t think they have a culinary arts program at Western, otherwise I’d do that.
What do people not understand about the Food Bank that they should?
That we can do wildly creative and impactful things with monetary support. I’m really proud of the strides we’ve made in changing the quantity and quality of food folks get. The only thing that limits us is the resources to do it. We’re not struggling financially, but we can always do more with more.
And who we’re serving. There’s a broad misconception about who needs hunger relief support in Whatcom County. It’s good people, people who either can’t find work or are unable to work. Or, people who don’t get paid a living wage job.
You probably know folks who go to the Food Bank. Last year, about 20 percent of Bellingham came to our Food Bank on a regular basis. Your bank teller may need the Food Bank, your barista might need the Food Bank, your server might need the Food Bank, the person helping you at REI might need the Food Bank. It’s a lot more regular folks than people realize.