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What happens when a food bank is a grocery store?

How the White Center Food Bank changed its model—and switched the narrative

In July, the White Center Food Bank began functioning more like a grocery store.
Hallie Golden

Inside a long, white building in White Center, an elderly woman examined a series of oranges before placing each one in her cart. A few feet away, a man looked over a large shelf of bread, with a sign that read, “Fresh Baked,” while a woman behind him perused the frozen food section.

It’s just what you would expect to see in any small grocery store. But there’s one key difference: Everything is free.

This is the White Center Food Bank, a major food distribution center for those in need about eight miles south of Seattle. Nearly five decades after it opened its doors, its organizers decided it was time for a change. They moved away from the age-old food bank tradition of long lines, cardboard boxes, and a standard set of handouts, and in transformed into a type of grocery store this past summer.

Each of the 1,600 families who visit every month get a shopping cart and the time and freedom to examine products and labels at their own pace. There is often no limit on how much food they can get. When they’re finished, they take their cart to the checkout counter, where volunteers bag their food and carry them out to their car or wherever they’re going.

The White Center Community Services Center, complete with a garden.
Hallie Golden

“We don’t necessarily want the food bank to be recognized as just another social service, where you’re made to hurry up and get all of this information about your life and share your kind of sob story about why you are where you are,” said Marèlle Habenicht, the food bank’s executive director. “We wanted to change that.”

The food bank is covered with shelves displaying everything from kidney beans and pasta to toilet paper. Freezers and refrigerators are packed with meats, cheeses, milk, and eggs, and in the middle is a large display of fruits and vegetables, many from the food bank’s own garden.

In a state where one in five residents rely on food banks, this type of grocery store model has become very popular. Habenicht said she’s noticed an increasing number of distribution centers across Washington making a similar change over the last few years. Five years ago, the Maple Valley Food Bank and Emergency Services added a grocery store shopping system, and over the summer the Multi-Service Center’s Federal Way Food Bank made the switch as well.

A volunteer bags groceries at the White Center Food Bank.
Hallie Golden

But it’s not an easy change to make. It can take years and cost thousands of dollars that non-profits on a shoestring budget do not necessarily have.

The White Center Food Bank made the switch in July, after just a few months of work. The funding came through a $2,500 grant from the King County Sodium Reduction Partnership and from a block party fundraiser over the summer.

The result has been an expanded food distribution area, along with newly installed shelves and carts for shoppers to use. The food bank has also added a scheduling system so that visitors can make appointments to shop, rather than wait in line, and substantially expanded its onsite garden, which has already produced 1,000 pounds of produce this year, said Habenicht.

The center is now able to distribute food for four hours each day, twice as long as they used to be able to, and serve nearly 100 families each day.

Carmen Smith, the food bank’s development director, said she has already received positive feedback from customers about the change. For example, soon after it reopened, she was working at the checkout counter when a woman who was shopping commented on how great it was that volunteers bagged the groceries for them.

The White Center Food Bank’s garden has produced more than 1,000 pounds of produce this year alone.
Hallie Golden

“She mentioned to me how good that made her feel, because when she brought her groceries home she didn’t have to try and hide the banana box,” said Smith. “It was just like she went to whatever market, and her neighbors didn’t know she had to go to the food bank.” Smith said the change has also nearly eliminated any type of line and the “tiffs” that occasionally took place before the food bank opened in the morning.

“There’s something to say about being able to pick your own food; something that a lot of us that don’t have to use food bank services can take for granted,” she said. “Going to the grocery store and being able to pick out exactly whatever you want I think is really important.”