Stacey Crnich likes to break the rules.
Luckily for her, being hired as the head of what was formerly known as the Bonney Lake Food Bank meant there were a lot of rules for her to break. And while much of the world came to a screeching halt when the COVID-19 first took hold, the pandemic gave Crnich the opportunity to supercharge the changes she wanted to make to the organization.
Now known as The Market, the nonprofit — located at the edge of Bonney Lake’s eastern city limits — aims to turn the world of food banking on its head by serving those in the grasp of food insecurity in a wholly new way.
A ‘NO RULES’ EXPERIENCE
They say first impressions are everything.
With that in mind, you could easily venture into The Market, grab a cart, load up on groceries, and head to the cashier before realizing you’re not in an independent grocery store, but a food bank (in fact, this has happened more than a few times).
This is by design — maybe above all else, Crnich wants her customers to feel comfortable shopping at The Market, which means treating them like they were just another customer at a store.
The Market achieves this by doing away with commonplace food bank rules that Crnich said were “dehumanizing.” For example, having to provide a name, address, and how many family members were trying to receive services; having a limit on how many times they can visit the food bank in a given amount of time; having a limit on how much food they could receive at a time; and not being allowed to touch the food they were receiving, just to name a few.
“The only rule is, there are no rules. You just come in, you grab a basket, and you shop for what you want to eat,” she said. “I realize that is completely different from every food bank probably in the state. A lot of people say [they] have a ‘grocery store concept’ but there are still rules and limitations in place. There are none here.”
Having no limits on how many times a customer can visit The Market or how much food they can take might be one of the more controversial stances Crnich has taken, but she’s not at all worried about people taking “advantage.”
“We don’t have people take advantage of us. A lot of times, we develop systems for the small percentage of people that may or may not — and that is subjective, right? Your opinion of people taking advantage of the system or not taking advantage of a system, that’s your opinion — that percentage of people that may or may not be taking advantage of a system is so minute, but we design systems using that as the starting point, and thinking the very worst of people,” she said. “Food banking is that. When 99 percent of the people are not going to take advantage of that system, we designed it for the 1 percent. And in that process, 99 percent of the people that walk in [there] are completely dehumanized.”
Of course, someone who is food insecure may “overindulge” once or twice, “because if you’ve been without, and all of a sudden, the floodgates open, you might,” Crnich continued. “But after the course of a couple times, when we’ve established trust, that really doesn’t happen.”
DISMANTLING BARRIERS TO ACCESS
Operating The Market like a grocery store is just one way Crnich and her team try to break down barriers that prevent people from getting the services they need.
Some of those barriers are physical — for example, some people experiencing food insecurity don’t have access to personal transportation (and, as everyone on the Plateau knows, public transportation is certainly not an option, either).
As a solution to that, The Market delivers food all around Pierce and King County, from rural Wilkeson to the Tapps Island suburb and bustling Federal Way (and, of course, Buckley, Enumclaw, and Black Diamond).
When doing deliveries, customer privacy is paramount — there’s no indication that a customer is receiving food from a food bank.
“I love branding, but we do not put our brand on any of our vehicles,” Crnich said. “It looks like Uber Eats. It looks like Amazon delivery.”
The Market also offers curbside service for those who are not comfortable coming into the shop.
But some barriers to access are mental, which can be harder — but no less important — to address; for example, first-time clients of food banks may find it extremely emotionally taxing to even just inquire about services, or dread having to explain their situation to a stranger when they first step through the door.
“Sometimes when you have to say something that is humiliating and devastating, for the very first time, and you hear yourself say it to another person, you choke over it,” she continued. “That’s where the trauma is. And you never forget it. You never forget that moment, that you had to reveal yourself.”
In that light, The Market has a few solutions — first, their landline can receive texts as well as phone calls, so customers can choose how they interact with the nonprofit based on their comfort level (you can typically expect a response later in the afternoon if you text).
And second, paid staff and volunteers are explicitly instructed to not ask about a customer’s personal situations.
“There’s no asking people questions about their life — you just leave people alone,” Crnich said. “This might be the only space that they have a little bit of ‘just being’, so we try to preserve that at all costs.”
Finally, Crnich and her team put a lot of effort into making The Market as diverse as possible, from the makeup of the paid staff to the availability of “comfort foods” from different cultures. According to Crnich, these efforts have been rewarded with a “spike” in diversity among customers, “because when you walk into a space and you feel represented in that space, on every level from the foods we offer to the people that you see — I’ve had my volunteers tell me that they’ve visibly seen people’s shoulders soften when they walk in here.”
As if running The Market isn’t enough, with its average 80 store customers per day and 50 delivery customers per week, Crnich is also exploring ways to get her customers the best, most nutritious foods possible.
At the moment, most of the food she has lining the shelves is from Pierce County’s Emergency Food Network, with a smattering of donations from local businesses and individuals.
But donated foods aren’t always the freshest, or most healthy — which is why Crnich is looking to team up with local food producers, not to solicit donations, but to actually purchase their goods with grant money.
She calls it a “virtuous circle concept,” where she helps provide local producers with a continuous flow of cash, and they help her keep her larders full.
One of her partners is Buckley-based Markarios Acres, a pork and beef producer.
“This is the best pork money can buy, and it is readily available to all people,” she said, pulling a package of frozen ground pork out of her freezer. “To me, it doesn’t get more beautiful than that.”
Another partner is Mom’s Micro Gardens, which actually grows its produce in a greenhouse right next to The Market.
For those not in the know, microgreens are just smaller versions of their regular-sized counterparts. While they can be often found in restaurants as garnishes, Crnich purchases them because of their reputation for being more “nutrient dense” than full-sized veggies.
Crnich says she particularly likes using microgreens when her team puts together meals for seniors, as they tend to eat less than younger folks, but may require a higher nutrition intake.
Finally, The Market also grows its own greens hydroponically in the back.
CASH KEEPS THE LIGHTS ON
With a staff of six and about a hundred volunteers, The Market isn’t hurting for physical labor.
Additionally, while food donations are always happily accepted, the nonprofit isn’t lacking in products, and finding local food producers to purchase goods from will just take time and patience.
What The Market really needs, Crnich said, is regular cash donations.
According to Crnich, when nonprofit was still the Bonney Lake Food Bank, it cost roughly $6,500 a month to stay open. Now, though, The Market costs upward $75,000 a month.
There are several reasons for the tenfold increase in budget expenditures. One would be that the six staff members are paid “for the most part” full time,” Crnich said. “The reason behind that is, one, we have a more sophisticated business model here – I have people designing recipes and curating food and looking for local food sources that we can purchase from with some of our grant money.”
Utility costs are also higher at The Market than they were at its previous location in Bonney Lake proper. However, Crnich is looking into utilizing solar power in order to continue cutting down those costs.
Finally, The Market’s customer base has grown since its previous iteration. According to Crnich, the Bonney Lake Food Bank was middling in size, compared to the 70 or so other food banks in Pierce County. Now, though, Crnich said The Market is about the third largest food bank in the county, thanks to its open-market concept and delivery system.
Too keep this all going, Crnich estimates she needs monthly donations of less than $30.
“$28. I’ve narrowed it down,” she said. “We already have fancy things, I don’t need to buy fancy things. I’ve already paid for that. [But] for somebody to walk in there and have the dignity of choice, and for us to provide equitable foods and fresh produce, that’s $28… If 2,000 people did that, I would never have to worry about money ever again.”
To donate to The Market, head to www.bonneylakefoodbank.org.
Hours of operation: 10 a.m. – 1 p.m. Mondays through Fridays
Address: 24015 State Route 410, Buckley WA 98321