Some seniors can't afford to buy vegetables. This truck helps. | KUOW News and Information

Some seniors can't afford to buy vegetables. This truck helps.

May 19, 2017

Most of the poor people in our region live in the suburbs. That can create problems for organizations like Food Lifeline, a nonprofit food distribution center. One solution for getting perishable food to needy people spread over a large area? A truck.

Food Lifeline collects surplus food from farmers, food manufacturers, grocery stores and restaurants, then stockpiles them at a distribution center in Seattle's South Park neighborhood. Eventually, it all goes out to needy people in the region, from children to seniors.

Food Lifeline driver Ronnie Schmidt estimates the distribution center would cover three football fields. 'We've got tons - literally tons - of peanut butter.'
Credit KUOW Photo/Posey Gruener

On this day, driver Ronnie Schmidt makes sure two pallets of produce get from the warehouse cooler to a refrigerated truck headed to senior housing in Renton.

"Today it's mostly produce, so there's potatoes, onions, stuff like that," says Schmidt. "I think the last couple months we had a lot of herbs, but most of the seniors, they say, 'What am I supposed to do with this?' So we try to get a certain variation of vegetables, so we get something that they actually know what to do with."

When Schmidt pulls the truck up to the housing authority, there's already a line forming outside. The food is distributed by number system, first come first serve. 

Stan Simmons is second in line. He lives close by, but today he brought his car. "I've got the gout, my foot. So I can't do a lot of walking." When the line opens up, Simmons moves down the line, telling latex-gloved volunteers what he'd like from the boxes. They select the items for him: a cantaloupe, a bag of tangerines, some avocados, some limes, some pears with a little bruising.

Every shipment is a little different, depending on what's in the warehouse and what's in season. But potatoes are a staple.
Credit KUOW Photo/Posey Gruener

After he's worked his way through the line, Simmons looks at his two full bags and wonders if it's too much for a bachelor. "Maybe I got a little greedy!" But Simmons says he appreciates the bounty. He's been diagnosed with pre-diabetes, and he's trying to eat better. Simmons says the free vegetables liberate him to experiment with cooking new dishes. "If I mess up, at least I'm not out too much!"

Sherry Ann Brown was one of the last to go through the line, and on this unexpectedly warm day, there were more people in line than usual. "I was sitting here," she says, "and I was like, 'Oh, they're going to run out, we're going to run out.' But they didn't run out. They just slowed down."

Brown didn't get some of the things she was looking for, she says. "They apologized 'We don't have any green things today.' Like peppers, or salad greens.'' But Brown says she is satisfied with what she came away with: some yams, sweet potatoes, and big bags of potatoes and onions. 

'When I first heard about this program,' says Sherry Ann Brown, 'I said, I'm not going to go there and stand in line. But then two months ago I was first! It was so funny, I made my friend take a picture.'
Credit KUOW Photo/Posey Gruener

Brown has diabetes and relies on food stamps. In the past, Brown says she could spend all of her food stamps on fruits and vegetables and have nothing left for her other needs. "I could spend 80 or 90 dollars every month, just on fruits and vegetables," she says. This program relieves some of that pressure. "I don't know what it is to really be hungry," Brown says, "but I know what it is to want something and not be able to afford it. And as much as I like fruits and vegetables, I wasn't able to get them. So this has really helped me."