A New Hope
In my last post, Phase One, I described my beginnings with the organization and the start of what seemed like a turnaround with hiring our new Executive Director, Stacey Crnich.
We’ll pick up on where I would mark the beginning of Phase Two. Technically I would say it is Stacey’s official start date on 2/27/2020, but, for me, It happened on 2/18/2020 in a coffee shop in Sumner.
The only detail that I will ever remember from that conversation was this question:
Have you heard about this virus in China?
I had been watching the news and was very concerned about what I saw coming at us halfway across the globe. Stacey's question caught me off guard, but I remember leaving that meeting thinking we had a real problem but no idea what I could do (especially in our current state) to be ready.
Nonetheless, with what was directly in front of us, it was easy to put what was coming in the back of our minds and focus on the task(s) at hand. Stacey quickly got to work doing emergency triage with our daily operations and working conditions. We joke that within days, she was ripping out fixtures and performing what could be best described as facility open heart surgery.
Looking back on that bit of humor with the perspective I have now makes me realize she’s been ripping out shelves every few days ever since (figuratively speaking).
We saw rapid progress, and it was exciting. It seemed like things were finally starting to look up.
Then, it happened. The distant news of the COVID-19 outbreak morphed into our stark reality.
A statewide stay-at-home order quickly followed after reports of a case in Everett. The abstract threat became tangible, and our work took on an immediate and crucial importance.
I think all of us can remember that time and its impact on us. I remember many sleepless nights wondering what would happen to my job, my health, and my family’s well-being, in addition to how we would keep an operation that had been on life support going into a crisis.
The strange new normal of life had begun.
As businesses closed their doors and uncertainty set in, the demand for food assistance skyrocketed. As a result, we had to reassess and adapt our operations to ensure the safety of our staff, volunteers, and those we served.
When we realized that the changes would shut down our operations, we thought about how we might pivot. Our first calls were to groups tasked with providing support to food banks looking for guidance on what to do in times of crisis, and, to our surprise, these groups had little to no help to offer. One of these calls ended with the contact on the other side of the line telling us:
“The calvary isn’t coming to save you. Good luck if you think the National Guard will show up.”
After hanging up on that phone call, we (the Executive Board) offered Stacey an out. I remember having a conversation that let her know none of this was expected, and if she wanted to bow out gracefully, we understood. I remember thinking that giving her this option was the right thing to do, but also, being scared to death, she would take us up on it.
Luckily for us (and everyone involved), Stacey didn’t take us up on the offer. So we decided to go forward and do our best to still serve our community despite the limitations the lockdown placed on us.
Knowing that we could no longer operate in our traditional grocery store model, we decided that our best option to serve the community's needs was to try and organize a bulk food drop out of the back of a truck.
The team came together, and we did an excellent job of making it work. Still, it became quickly apparent to us after this operation that there was no way that this was a sustainable method for supporting the community, given our resource limitations.
Aside from this approach's operational complexities and risks, it didn’t fit our vision for best serving a community and harkened back to an unacceptable “breadline” approach to food security.
These displays of “help” continue to be commonplace, but the reality is that making humans line up to serve a basic need is not helping anyone. If this is how an organization is forced to serve, then I would challenge that organization to rethink its model. Memories of participating in the common modes of how many hunger relief organizations help can carry forward for years in the minds of those individuals.
How do I know this?
I have heard many stories from customers at The Market that they remember going to the local food bank with their parents and being made to wait while they were given food (versus being able to choose).
This is a big reason we started with a simple vision when moving into The Market: when a child walks into the Bonney Lake Food Bank, they have no idea it’s a food bank. Instead, we knew we had to find a way to serve the community that kept people’s dignity intact, especially with so many in an already fragile state.
Necessity is the mother of invention
It was hard to see then, but innovation was happening amid the struggle to make it all work. Limitations imposed by lockdowns and the scaling needs of our broader community forced us to think outside the box. I knew technology would play a large part in addressing the needs moving forward, and the pieces of how that would come together started to be implemented during the early months of the pandemic.
It started with a simple ask.
Stacey mentioned to me that it would be helpful if some way we could better streamline communications both internally and externally with our customers.
I set up a few systems for us that could help, including Microsoft Office365 and Avochato (a texting app that enabled us to communicate directly with customers). With these two systems in place, it enabled us to better coordinate across resources and externally facing customers.
We did our best to use these systems and organize contactless pickups with clients from the old building. It wasn’t ideal, but the team made it work and improved our approach and processes daily as we learned what was working. We used Avochato to communicate delivery to our customers and kept notes on an Office365 spreadsheet for delivery drivers (an example of this might be: Third RV on the right past the green truck or the third tent by the river.)
The Calvary Arrives
Around the same time we started implementing these systems and organizing the contactless pickups, I found a number for the WA National Guard and shared it with Stacey.
On a whim, she called and put our name on a list for a callback. A few days later, Commander Sebastinelli contacted Stacey.
Remember the person that told us earlier the cavalry wasn’t coming? Well, they couldn’t have been more wrong. The cavalry arrived, and they came in a big way.
We quickly started working with the guard to scale our operations (no one can optimize and operate like the military) and built a delivery service from the ground up. We started this delivery service with a couple of early ’80s Dodge Econovans and saw the National Guard expand that footprint to a few more Sprinter Vans we use today.
To my knowledge, we were the first delivery service to run at the scale we did in the State of Washington. I am very proud to say that the food bank on life support only a few months earlier, looking like there was no hope, somehow found a way to flip the script and become an example of how to persevere in uncertain times.
Over the next few months, our organization quickly shifted to become a recognized leader in our response. We saw our client counts scale to numbers we could have never previously imagined, and miraculously, we kept up with the demand. The stories that happened during this time are too numerous to all name here, but each of them was special and will forever hold a place in the memories of those there to experience the transformation.
We started this journey with the National Guard with three guardsmen and eventually scaled that number to ten. You can see reminders of their presence in various ways, including process optimization and the incredible attention to detail in all aspects of their work.
Matt Driscoll from The News Tribune captured more of the details of this story in beautiful detail if you want to learn more.
Betting the Farm
As our operations scaled over time, it became more and more apparent that there was no way our current facility (and the string of storage containers outside) could sustain the scale and volume we were seeing. So we knew we had to find a way to get ourselves into a new facility better suited to our needs and the growth we continued to anticipate.
At a time when we had very little money, we took a calculated risk and decided to move to a nearby property on the outskirts of town known at the time as The Farmer’s Daughter’s Farm.
I don’t want to go into too many details, but a close friend that many of you would know by name consulted Stacey in this decision. She asked him if we were crazy for making a move like this, and he told her:
“Yes, you’re crazy, but it’s the right kind of crazy. Go for it.”
That was it.
In the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, we worked with staff, the National Guard, and many volunteers to move out of the facility in Bonney Lake to the farm. The entire migration happened over a weekend, and we saw no service disruption for our customers.
This marked the end of Phase Two and the beginning of Phase Three, which I will write about in a forthcoming article.
The events in phases one and two are more than enough to write a book (which someday will happen), but those were only the beginnings of our story.
I’ll be back again in the next few weeks with Phase Three to fill all of you in on how a farm on the outskirts of town would be transformed and how radical ideas for systemic change would be implemented.