ILWACO - Bundled up in boots, heavy coats and eyebrow-tickling knitted caps, a crew of 10 to 12 people work patiently stacking boxes and sorting food, which is also bundled - in moisture-blocking tarps that is.
With smiles on their faces and an occasional joke to break the silence, the group works hard despite standing on a sopping wet floor and darting to avoid the raindrops dripping through the moldy ceiling. One woman takes a break from her work to peek under the chest freezers to see if there are still mushrooms growing underneath them.
"The water runs down the walls from the ceiling, onto the floor and under the freezers," she explains.
There is no heat, no running water or restrooms.
While this indoor environment could be quickly associated with what one might see in a third world country on the pages of National Geographic, the damp, moldy, leaky and drafty work area previously described is actually home to the Ilwaco Food Bank.
Such a situation is bittersweet - our community has a group of volunteers, some of whom are into retirement, who are dedicated to feeding the Peninsula's families in need, but it has to be a challenge to keep such a warm heart in downright cold and wet conditions.
A couple times a month, volunteers help load and unload trucks of food items to help out local families. Every second and fourth Friday, they layer up their clothing and arrive at the food bank ready to work. For three hours they divvy out frozen and non-perishable food items and produce, such as potatoes, onions and apples. Ilwaco Food Bank Manager Kay Coleman says on average, they help feed 95 families every two weeks.
Coleman speculates that the food bank has been at the current location on Lake Street for about five years.
"The person that owns the building now did not own it when we first moved in. At first, we rented it from someone at the Sea Hag for $250 per month, but this landlord raised it to $400 per month. When we tell him about the roof, he says that if we don't like it then we should leave. ... We shouldn't have to beg for a decent roof. Our rent is paid by donations. We have a couple of real good donators and if we didn't have any of them, I don't think we'd make it."
Every day that volunteers are in the building, Coleman says she fears for their safety. The floors are always wet and boards have been known to fall from the ceiling.
"$400 is a lot for a lot of nothing. ... I'm so afraid someone is going to slip and get hurt," she sighs.
Looking for a fix
Food bank volunteer Richard Patana approached Ilwaco City Council for suggestions regarding the problem on Jan. 28. Mayor Doug Hubbard and the councilors suggested that he check with the Port of Ilwaco or the school district, and Patana did just that. Unfortunately, he had no luck finding another building to use.
Coleman says that until recently she thought she may had found a new space to rent, but after she approached the city of Ilwaco about the idea, the food bank was forced to reject the site. According to the city, the site was in a residential area and the food bank needs a commercially-zone building.
"There is no exchange of money, how can we be a business?" laughs volunteer Allen Larsen.
The city has also raised concerns about adequate parking space for food bank patrons. But Coleman and food bank volunteers feel that parking isn't as big of a concern as city officials make it out to be, since many of their customers arrive on bikes or on foot.
"[The food bank] deserves a place to be," says Long Beach resident Doug Levitt. "They go out of their way to help us. I think it's wrong for the city to reject them. They need a place to help these people. I think the city's being unfair."
Many are helped"People tend to think that it's just 'poor people' we serve," Patana explains. "But it's people who are unemployed or only making minimum wage. It's tough to live on minimum wage - what are they supposed to do? Years ago it was common for neighbors to help each other out when they needed it. Now people want to stay out of other people's problems."
Coleman agrees, "For a lot of people, this is the only food they get. We get a lot of elderly people who are living on Social Security and I don't know how they would make it otherwise. ... We serve a really great, nice bunch of people."
Mayor Hubbard says the potential space sat within a residential zone and would require the food bank to obtain a conditional use permit to operate there.
"We tried to look for other options for them and we're more than willing to work with them," explains Hubbard. "They're more than welcome to apply for a conditional use permit, though it is hard to say how it would go. In fairness to the surrounding property owners, this is a process we have to go through."
What the future brings for the food bank is anyone's guess, but Coleman fears that the landlord, who also owns the nearby annex and thrift store, may kick them out.
Looking in IlwacoSince Jessie's Ilwaco Fish Company stores some of the food bank's frozen food, the new rental space would have to be in Ilwaco. According to Patana, the minimum amount of space they could use would be 25 feet by 40 feet. For most of the month, the space serves as storage for food items and is only occupied about five days each month.
Anyone who may be able to assist with finding Ilwaco Food Bank a new home is encouraged to call Kay Coleman at 642-3450 or Rachel Gana at 642-8723.