It’s a tidal event in Buckley.
Twice a month, thousands of pounds of milk, meat, and vegetables arrive in the city, and within minutes, it is all swept away by locals who have found themselves needing a little help feeding themselves or their families.
This is Free Food Wednesday, generally held every other Wednesday and organized by local volunteers (find more information on the Pay it Forward Buckley Facebook community group and others). No ID or proof of need is required — just show up and take what you need.
In fact, the biggest rules at the twice-monthly volunteer-run effort to feed local families are to be respectful and not take more than you need. (Sometimes there’s a limit on specific items, too.)
Organizer Shannon Jones Slish, a respiratory therapist and fitness instructor, started giving away the food about 18 months ago. But what began as a way to get food out to a few friends in need has quickly become a regular fixture in Buckley, and part of a larger network of food banks and volunteers helping many families in the area make ends meet.
On Wednesday, July 13, for instance, volunteers brought boxes of potatoes, gallons of milk, big jars of mayonnaise, and Peeps — boxes upon boxes of the sugary yellow marshmallow birds. Sumner Food Bank volunteers unloaded 10,000 pounds of food from their truck that day — that’s about the weight of an African Elephant.
The shoppers stocked up as quickly as they left. Within about 20 minutes, the food was nearly all gone.
“There’s a lot of need in our community,” Slish said. “There’s more than what, I think, anybody realizes. … We’ve been here 18 months, and they’re just now getting the courage to come out and ask for help.”
The giveaways started when Slish’s friend, working for the Kent School District, began receiving food boxes from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) through the federal CARES act. That friend asked if Slish knew any families who could use the help, and Slish did — mostly high school kids, with parents going through expensive medical treatment or furloughs from their work.
So Slish started picking up boxes from Kent and delivering them in the Plateau. A couple boxes at a time turned into 20, a few Facebook posts started generating dozens of responses, and soon the semi-trucks of food boxes were delivering 800 boxes of food per week to Slish’s doorstep.
“These are all people who I talk to weekly, who I see weekly, and I had no idea they were struggling,” Slish said. “That’s when I realized, ‘Ok, there’s a bigger problem.’ “
Families started helping Slish distribute the food to their own networks, and in the meantime, her burgeoning team began using the Buckley Eagles parking lot to hand out food to families in need. The Puyallup and Sumner Food Banks got involved to supplement those FDA boxes with other essentials like bread, milk and chips.
The Biden administration cut off the food box program in May 2021, but Slish and the other volunteers decided to keep going. Now, food companies call them and ask if they can send a truck-full of food to donate, Slish said. So every other Wednesday, Slish loads up her horse trailer, or the Sumner volunteers fill up their truck, and they start hauling to the Eagles parking lot.
Slish posts twice a month in several Buckley community Facebook pages, detailing the food they have from the Sumner food bank for the next drop-off and any special instructions or changes in their programming.
The Sumner food bank often gets good, nonspoiling food because a grocery store rejects it on highly specific grounds. A truckload of milk gets rejected because the stickers are wrong, for instance, or 60 palettes of potatoes are rejected because the tubers are too big.
When that happens, truckers are in a bind. They’ve got to drop the cargo, fast, and get back on the road. Rather than let it spoil or get tossed, they often find open hands in local foodbanks.
And finally, the Sumner food bank and others can connect with Slish to get food to people before it would spoil or take up too much space at their stores.
What the Sumner food bank is able to give to Slish is determined by what delivery trucks are able to give to the food bank. It takes Slish more than a half dozen trips, back-and-forth, to get everything from the food bank in time for the food handouts. The food bank sent their big truck for the first time on July 13 to help speed up the process.
Meanwhile, the Buckley Eagles allow the team to use their space, and “they don’t even bat an eye,” Slish says: “Whatever we need, they’re really easy going about it.”
The Sumner food bank touches 32,000 people every month through its operations, operations manager Jay Hill said. It’s situated at the confluence of several major trucking companies, a large amount of warehouses and three major state highways, forming a sort of axle for trucking through south Pierce County. People travel from as far away as Everett, Chehalis and Gig Harbor to stock up, Hill said.
“We run like Costco,” Hill said. “We get it in and we push it out.”
When those trucking companies donate to the food bank, they get a tax write-off, and the Sumner Food Bank grows its reserves — so much so that Sumner now distributes to about two dozen other food pantries too, along with churches and nonprofits across Pierce County.
Meanwhile, Slish “comes down and takes all my food” too, Hill said with a laugh. “So I decided to bring it to her instead, (because) she’s going to get it anyway.”
FILLING A NEED
If you’ve felt the pinch on your wallet lately, you’re not alone.
From July 2021 to July 2022, average consumer prices rose 9.1%, the largest 12 month increase since November 1981, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. It was driven in large part by gasoline and food prices, which is no surprise to anyone trying to make it on a budget these days.
Spikes in the cost of “inelastic products” like food and gas — goods you can’t really afford not to buy — can push people who are already struggling into financial desperation.
There will always be people in need, Hill said, but that need locally seems to be growing. The Sumner Food Bank handed out nearly 1.4 million pounds of food so far this year. In 2021, they totaled about 1.2 million for the whole year. Multiple factors, chief among them inflation, are causing that growth, he said.
“Before, we were helping people that needed help,” he said. “Now we’re trying to keep people out of poverty. They can’t afford to fill up their gas tank, to get food, and they still gotta pay rent.”
Between the three Sumner food bank volunteers, around six high schoolers and a handful of other volunteers, it’s a small crew that makes the free food events happen.
It’s a win-win for the kids, who get volunteer hours for their graduation requirements in addition to a chance to help out people in need. They’re runners and basketball players, “strong kids who are willing to help out where they need to,” Slish said.
Jackson Tague, 18, just graduated from White River High School and has volunteered with Slish’s team for about 8 months.
“I joined in just to have a good time with my friends, but I started to realize that these people need this service,” Tague said. “Just 20 minutes ago, I was helping a lady bring her bags to her car, and she gave me a hug and thanked me. It really hit home. … If anyone would like to help out, don’t be afraid to reach out to your local foodbank. They would love the help.”
His sister, Jillian Tague, will be a junior in the fall. What started as a chance to hang out with friends and get volunteer hours became more when she first saw all the people waiting to get fed.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God,’ that’s a lot of people who need this food,” Jillian Tague said. “It’s really rewarding for everyone around (here).”
Soleil Bianchi, about to become a senior at White River, has been volunteering since nearly the beginning. The evolution from the FDA food boxes to the sheer scale of food they give away now has made a real difference in the community, she said.
“There are a lot of people you know who really need the help,” Bianchi said. “It’s satisfying that you know you’re able to help them. … Even if you’re struggling, you can come out and get food. We’re not limiting who can come and who can’t. It’s open to everyone.”
And doing the work, Bianchi said, has shown the kids what kind of a community they want to live in when they’re older.
As fellow food bank supervisor Bill Petersen put it: “What better job can you have than give away free food to people who want it?”