Accessing nutritious food: more people & families now qualify for Washington State’s The Emergency Food Assistance Program  

Leer en Español

Not everyone in King County can afford enough nutritious food, and many rely on food banks to supplement their weekly groceries. A new statewide policy recognizes that even a household of three making nearly $100,000 can still experience food insecurity. This policy lowers barriers to accessing food banks. We talked to Kate Ortiz, program manager with Public Health’s Healthy Eating Active Living program, and Carmen Smith, Executive Director of White Center Food Bank, to learn more about this new opportunity for fresh, nutritious food in King County.    

Kate, what is the new policy?  

Most food banks in King County are open to anyone needing food. However, this new policy helps to officially remove barriers to accessing this food that people may have experienced in the past.  

Specifically, a new Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) policy impacts a federal nutrition program called The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), which provides a variety of foods to food banks across the state. Before the pandemic, Washington food banks receiving these foods were limited to distributing them to people with a household income below 185% of the federal poverty level, or about $46,000 for a family of three. That doesn’t cover everyone experiencing food insecurity.  

How does the new policy change eligibility?  

With the new policy, households with incomes up to 400% of the federal poverty level are now eligible. Four hundred percent of the federal poverty level is $58,320 for a single person and $99,440 for a family of three. Plus, the new policy removes a geographic requirement and allows food banks to provide this food to anyone in the state.  These food banks also cannot require anyone to show identification or a social security number, nor can they require proof of income, household size, or immigration status. 

How widespread is food insecurity in King County?  

Cartoon drawing of person shopping at a farmers market.

Food insecurity happens when people run out of food and don’t have money to buy more. Living in King County is expensive, and wages often do not match the cost of living here. Monthly expenses can shrink budgets and reduce money left over for food.  

As incomes rise, food insecurity rates tend to decrease. However, a 2019 study by Public Health – Seattle & King County and the University of Washington found that food insecurity persisted for some groups until their household incomes reached 400% of the federal poverty level. The study underscores the importance of ensuring food assistance is available to those who need it. WSDA used this study’s findings to reduce barriers to people accessing food. 

Carmen, can you tell us about the food generally available at food banks?  

One source of the food we provide is the federal TEFAP program that purchases fruit, vegetables, proteins, whole grains, rice, and dairy from farmers nationwide and makes those available in shelf-stable, fresh, and frozen products. Many food banks also have other funds to purchase food items, including local produce. A third source is food donations from stores and the public.  

Are there any foods available at White Center Food Bank that you’d like to highlight?

At White Center Food Bank, we have a large food budget to supplement what we don’t get from TEFAP and donations to offer a more well-rounded selection to meet the needs of our vibrantly diverse community. We carry Halal meat and other culturally relevant items; we work with local and BIPOC farmers to supply fresh produce and celebrate cultural and religious holidays with the community through specialty food items.  

Carmen, how is this policy change making a difference to families and individuals in King County?  

Folks are the experts in their own lives and know whether they need food bank services. Using income to determine eligibility doesn’t account for all the circumstances that drive people to use food banks and need extra support. This change will give people more options to meet their families’ food needs. 

Kate, what other ways can people get help with food?  

Calling Public Health’s Community Health Access Program (CHAP) at 1-800-756-5437 is a great place to start. The CHAP line provides help in multiple languages with getting connected to programs for food like Basic Food or SNAP and the WIC Program, as well as other support services. You can also find information about many food banks and meal programs across King County here.  

Originally published 9/28/2023