By Jodi Rawson
Sandpoint is a land of plenty with a lot of poverty. There are those living in excess, and there are those battling deprivation daily. The property taxes the wealthy elite pay for their mansions each year exceeds the yearly income of a working family. In the winter, one community member might hunger for the latest gear and a nicer mountain condo, while another community member, who has never been to Schweitzer, is hungry for food.
The poor are always with us, but after Christmas, people often forget. Debbie Love, director of our local food bank, says that the shelves are a little bare around this time of year, but the hunger is as present as ever. Love says there has been an increase in “clientele” when the government food stamp program dramatically decreased benefits last October. On the other end of the spectrum are the richest corporations that have no intention of sharing the trillion dollars of tax breaks they will reap this year.
The average national wage notoriously fails to keep up with the substantial increases each year to our basic costs of living. Idaho is a “right to work” state, which means our minimum wage is trumped by other neighboring states. Furthermore, Bonner County has an average of 54.5 percent of the school children eligible for free or reduced lunches. The national average is 52 percent.
Love has also seen an increase in homelessness in our area, “which is interesting and very sad.” Love has lived in Sandpoint for 10 years and has been the director of the Bonner Community Food Center for two years. Prior to this position, Love was the director of the Pend Oreille Arts Council for three years, which helped her make a lot of community connections.
Love admits that she was not aware of the needs in this community prior to directing the Bonner Community Food Center, which has two locations, one near the airport and the other in Priest River.
In 2017 over 800 families were served, and there were 18,500 visits. They operate without government assistance and are funded through grants, fundraisers and private donations. When a person comes in hungry, they are able to explain their need to a real person and go home with something to eat. In contrast, the government-funded food stamp program has a uniformed guard, the hungry draw a number and they are expected to have proper paperwork and wait.
Sandpoint has been blessed with a food bank for over 30 years. In 2011 they moved into their current location where they opened up a “market.” The market is a room with shelves and refrigeration where the client is able to shop for their groceries. Not only does this provide dignity to those in need, but it also eliminates waste by ensuring everyone is getting only what they are hungry for.
Day-old dairy products, bakery products, produce or slightly damaged packaged items are provided by the “grocery rescue program,” a program which all local grocery stores participate. Shelf-stable items like tuna and peanut butter are stocked through food drive or cash donations.
The Bonner Community Food Center also has a “food share program” which provides places like Kinderhaven and the Senior Center with food. They are working with nutritionists from the University of Idaho to raise awareness and provide recipes using the food available at the food banks. Last year Love helped spearhead a community garden. Soon to be expanded to nine beds, this on-site garden provides clients with gardening opportunities and fresh produce.
A couple local food bank statistics to consider: 70 percent of the local clients are relying on Social Security as their primary source of income. On average these are elder community members surviving on $800 per month for all of their living expenses. About 46 percent of the local clients only visit the food bank five times or less each year. These are people who have had medical emergencies, transitions in work, or any other unforeseen event which can cause temporary monetary needs and hunger.
The future of our country may have an even sharper contrast between the rich and the poor. It is vital that those living in excess have an understanding for the needs in their community and take action to help (food or monetary donations to the Bonner Community Food Center are always appreciated). Hunger always causes weakness, and Sandpoint is only as strong as its weakest link.
“We help a lot of people,” said Love. “You just never know who is going to walk through the door.”