FISH Westside Food Pantry of Vancouver continues its mission despite pandemic – The Columbian

Blanca Vazquez started visiting FISH Westside Food Pantry of Vancouver for food and other household necessities early last year due to the pandemic.

The mother of two teenage boys, ages 15 and 16, and caretaker to her elderly father, had used the volunteer-run, donations-funded nonprofit that distributes food before COVID-19 began impacting the lives of Clark County residents, but that was about a decade ago.

Vazquez sought help once again because her work hours as a cleaner at the Moda Center in Portland have been drastically reduced. She’s been looking for work since the sports arena closed, applying for cleaning jobs, but has so far been unsuccessful.

The food from FISH “helps a lot, but it’s certainly hard. My kids are growing teenagers, not little children,” Vazquez said.

She said she’s hopeful things will improve this year, and she’ll be able to go back to work full time.

FISH held a walk-up, contactless service Saturday in lieu of a planned drive-thru event.

The cold weather and possibility of rain caused the organization to shift its game plan.

By 11 a.m., only eight people had come to receive food at 906 Harney Street. Things picked up, however. An hour later, a volunteer said about 25 people had been provided with food. That’s around the same amount of recipients that showed up last weekend. About 60 or more families generally receive food on weekdays, when the service operates for four hours instead of two hours.

Executive Director James Fitzgerald said that in the face of challenges brought on by a tough year, efforts to provide food to people in need have been smooth. There are busy days, and not-so-busy days, but the organization is currently keeping up with demand, he said.

“Since the pandemic started, we saw numbers drop initially as people were afraid to come out. Since April, our numbers have been steadily going back up and are about what they were before COVID-19. We have not yet seen the effects of reduced government assistance,” Fitzgerald said.

About 1,200 families, or 3,500 people, are being served every month, according to FISH. More families are seeking services for the first time, so while the overall numbers work out to be about the same, the organization believes this year’s numbers will increase due to the newer clients being added into what was its “normal” client levels.

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Increases in demand are inevitable, said Fitzgerald, but they haven’t emerged just yet.

Tosha Kent said Saturday that it was her first time using FISH for much-needed items. She and three of her four young children filled the back of a van with food and a large jug of laundry detergent. As they did so, a volunteer handed over dog and cat food that had been tucked away and hard to find.

“Any assistance right now is helpful,” said Kent.

She said she was furloughed from her job as a medical assistant. Recently, she’s picked up some hours of work, but with schools continuing to limit in-person learning, she needs to be home to watch her kids.

Kent hasn’t yet received her $600 stimulus check from the federal government. While she knows it will help, she said she believes the money may harm the county’s economy in the long-term. She is more so looking forward to businesses fully reopening.

When asked if she thought that could happen sooner rather than later, Kent replied, “Hopefully.”

FISH has remained open for the entirety of the pandemic and has not missed a regular day of serving its clients. But services have been hampered in a couple different ways.

First, the majority of the nonprofit’s volunteers, around 85 percent, were retired seniors who were no longer able to help out due to their vulnerability to COVID-19, Fitzgerald said. FISH had to scramble to effectively operate with a smaller staff. That required rebuilding its team, but luckily the community stepped up to fill the gaps, he said.

Second, their distribution model needed to be changed. Clients are not allowed in their building, and food comes pre-bagged and boxed through a contactless system.

“We are fulfilling our mission to feed and nourish our community, but just doing it a little different,” Fitzgerald said.

Despite the changes in clientele and procedures, Fitzgerald said his team is feeling optimistic about this year. Wherever possible, FISH plans to revert back to its pre-pandemic methods. Things like allowing people back into its lobby, moving toward increased selection of food, and simply having more personal interactions.

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