Staff at the Asian Counseling and Referral Service Food Bank pack grocery bags for delivery. Photo by Liza Javier / ACRS

For years, community members who needed groceries could walk up to the small food bank in the Chinatown International District (CID) managed by Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS) and receive culturally-relevant food.

With the COVID-19 pandemic transforming business as usual, the ACRS food bank had to shift strategy in order to to safely continue providing food to the community. The occasional food bank visitor still comes to the CID location, but for safety reasons, entering the small space is not encouraged.

Instead, the food bank’s new base of operations is a gym in the Rainier Valley, where staff and volunteers bag groceries while following social distancing measures. The groceries are delivered to residential buildings in the CID and  throughout King County, with the help of the King County Access program. 

ACRS has also partnered with 20 other community nutrition sites, which either pick up supplies from ACRS, or receive deliveries from ACRS, so that community members can access the food without having to come to the food bank. 

“We’re in this delivery mode for the foreseeable short term, while this crisis is going on,” said G de Castro, director of ACRS Aging and Adult Services at ACRS, who oversees operations at the ACRS food bank, meals program, and senior program Club Bamboo.

Chef Salima and the kitchen staff at Club Bamboo make bagged hot meals for the ACRS food bank. Photo by Cory Morimoto / ACRS

The food bank now delivers an average of 1,300 to 1,500 bags per week, de Castro said. When the coronavirus pandemic began, the food bank was delivering 850 bags per week. “The demand for it has risen quite significantly from when we started this,” de Castro said.

The ACRS food bank has no zip code restrictions, and food is delivered throughout King County, where the widely-dispersed Asian Pacific Islander American community lives.

Grocery bags typically contain a protein source, some fruit and vegetables, staples like rice and noodles, and whatever other supplies are available.

The coronavirus pandemic has cast uncertainty on the funding for the food bank. While half the money for food bank operations comes from the City Human Services Department, which has committed to continue this funding according to de Castro, the other half comes from fundraising. The most significant fundraiser is the annual Walk for Rice event, which raises money for the food bank and meals program and is usually held in person at Seward Park.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of Walk for Rice, which will be held online this year for safety reasons. Those interested can participate here.

ACRS is closely monitoring possible shortages in food supply brought on by the COVID-19 crisis, which have impacted food banks across the country.

De Castro said one of the food bank’s major suppliers, Food Lifeline, saw a 75 percent decline in donations. “That has a trickle-down effect,” de Castro said. “If they’re experiencing some difficulties with their own financial donations, that will impact the amount of food that they’re able to put out, and that impacts us, because we rely on what they can provide the food bank.”

ACRS buys large quantities of food in bulk, and some suppliers are limiting the amount of food that food banks like ACRS can buy from them. “That’s a bit of a challenge for us,” de Castro said. Others are experiencing delays in getting supplies available. “But so far, our food bank staff have been really adapting to the situation,” de Castro said.

For as long as the community needs it, ACRS plans to continue delivering groceries, de Castro said. “The community really needs food at this time, when there’s a lot of uncertainty,” he said. “They’re grateful that they’re getting the food supplies and the meals that we’re delivering.”

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