OCCAC offices will be closed Monday, February 19th, for President's Day.

More Food Needed for More People in Need

By Rena Shawver, Executive Director, Okanogan County Community Action Council (OCCAC)

It’s hard to imagine food shortages in a community like ours which is surrounded by agriculture.  But food scarcity is real in Okanogan County.  

The number of county residents relying on food assistance grew from 8,000 in 2020 to 11,000 in 2022.  While more people rely on food assistance, less food is available.    

Image of donated food for the food bank. Pasta, olive oil, peanut butter, canned goods and beans.
Food shortages means more food donations are needed. Shelf stable items like crackers, pasta and canned goods are always a welcome site at the food pantries.

Why is this happening?   

Several things contribute to the need for food and the food shortages occurring in our community:    

Poverty.  Lack of living-wage jobs, inflation, and systems that hold people in poverty all contribute to an increasing number in need of food assistance. One in three Okanogan residents used one of the nine food pantries in the county last year.

Rising cost of transporting food. Trucking food supplies to rural areas is getting more and more expensive with rising fuel costs; one reason cited by Second Harvest in Spokane for cutting food distribution to Okanogan last November. Last year, Second Harvest provided 511,000 pounds of staple foods like meat, poultry, and fresh produce to Okanogan County; between $50,000-$100,000 for Hunger Relief monthly.  Although Second Harvest has resumed providing food to Okanogan County, OCCAC now needs to travel to Wenatchee twice a month to pick the food up.  So, the cost of transportation has been shifted to rural communities; an added expense not adequately covered by funding sources.

Processing systems. About 200 food processing facilities operate in Washington State, mostly processing fruits, vegetables, and seafood.  Much of the food processed here is sold out of state, sometimes only to return to local markets. Meats must be processed and packaged by a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) certified facility, which there are none in Okanogan County.  Foods grown in Okanogan and processed elsewhere increases the price of the food and decreases the nutritional quality of the food.  Trucking food long distances increase carbon emissions, and the county loses the opportunity to use that food locally.

Storage. As the distribution center for the county’s nine food pantries, OCCAC does not have a food-storage warehouse, which is sorely needed. The ability to store shelf-staple food would allow OCCAC to better manage food distribution across the county, especially during shortages.  Further, the county needs a Food Hub to actively manage the collection, distribution, and marketing of food products from local and regional producers, to strengthen their ability to satisfy wholesale, retail and institutional demand for food pantries, hospitals, and schools.   

Bureaucracy. While we don’t want to bite the hand that feeds us, lack of attention to the food scarcity issues between big agriculture and government is getting in the way. The issues involved are complex, to be sure, but contribute to food scarcity in an agriculturally rich America.  We must urge our elected leaders to take food shortages for humans seriously, explore the systems that lead to food scarcity, and to preserve the funding for food assistance programs, like SNAP (food stamps), that support one in four Americans.

The bottom line is that our food systems are broken. 

What can be done?

While OCCAC and others make our community’s needs known to those who can make significant change including the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA), NW Harvest, elected officials, and the USDA, we also need to come together as a community to take care of our own.

Your cash and food donations make a difference.

Since Second Harvest dropped deliveries to Okanogan County in November, donations have been pouring into OCCAC.  Save the Children provided $25,000; United Health Care provided $35,000, and Okanogan County came to the rescue with $200,000. These funds will help food pantries purchase foods through local grocers through March while WSDA, our major supplier of food for Hunger Relief programs, works the shortage issue.

Private donations in December reached an all-time high of nearly $20,000 with $5,000 coming from the 12 Tribes Casino and a few private donations of $1,000-$2,000.  Contributions of $25-$200 increased as well; these are the most heartfelt donations as they come from people who are not wealthy, but care about their neighbors.  

Local grocers have increased their donations of food and some businesses and organizations are running food drives.  Students from the Okanogan School District ran a Penny Drive for the food pantries and turned in a check for $352.52.  These contributions are significant and add up.

We are grateful and appreciate all the community support.  Although this recent food crisis raised an eyebrow to a continuing issue, ongoing support is needed year-round.  

If you would like to help, contact OCCAC at 509-422-4041 about a food drive or go to www.occac.com/donate to donate.