Kirsten O'Brien/The AS Review

It’s a chilly Wednesday evening, and a line has already started curling around the Bellingham Food Bank. People of all ages, races, genders and income levels stand huddled together against the November rain. They wait for the doors to open promptly at 5 p.m., where they’ll have access to a variety of canned goods, fruits, vegetables, meat products and even sweets. The food bank is open to any Bellingham resident, as long as they are able to show proof of address.

“We’re here for anyone who comes in and says they need help getting food,” said Mike Cohen, executive director of the Bellingham Food Bank. “We purposefully don’t put any barriers up to getting food. We know that for the folks who choose to come here, it can be a humbling experience and not an easy decision to make.”

Western seniors Max Stiles and Natalia Oncina are frequent food bank visitors. They live together along with three other roommates, and they use the food bank in addition to buying groceries, Dumpster diving and using food stamps.

Stiles said he uses the food bank primarily because it offers quality food for free. Stiles is unemployed and said it can be difficult to find a part-time job in Bellingham. As a result, he does not always have the extra cash to spend on food.

For Oncina, the food bank provides an alternative to Dumpster diving for food. She said that the food bank is a good place to go when it is too hot or too rainy to Dumpster dive.

“You know what you’re going to get when you go to the food bank,” Oncina said. “When you’re Dumpstering, you could go and not find anything or find things you don’t really want.”

The Bellingham Food Bank, located on 1824 Ellis Street, is Whatcom County’s largest community food provider. Since 1972, the food bank has provided thousands of households with a variety of fresh produce, canned goods and more.

Food is distributed every Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 12:30 to 3:00 p.m., and Wednesday evenings from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m. The food bank is open to all Bellingham residents, and individuals are allowed one visit per week. The amount of food an individual receives is based on how many people are in their household.

Cohen said that all food bank visitors are guaranteed a minimum of one dozen eggs, a half-gallon of milk and a protein item. The amounts of other food items a person might receive may vary.

The Bellingham Food Bank allows people to choose what foods they would like to take. Foods are grouped by type based on the food pyramid and put on tables. People make their way from table to table, choosing various items from each table.

“We try to offer a diverse array of foods,” Cohen said. “We also try to emphasize food that is nutritious.”

The food at the food bank comes from a variety of sources. Cohen said that every day, Bellingham Food Bank trucks visit various grocery stores in the area to pick up excess produce as well as foods that are close to expiration or overstocked.

In addition, the Bellingham Food Bank owns a three-acre parcel of land where it grows 20,000 to 30,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables each year. The food bank also oversees the Small Potatoes Gleaning Project, a program that works in combination with local farmers to collect their excess produce. Max Morange, the Bellingham Food Bank agricultural programs coordinator, said that 150 volunteers have helped pick food from a dozen local farms this year. In total, he said that volunteers have collected 130,000 pounds of food that would have otherwise gone to waste.

Cohen said that a typical household can receive between 50 and 70 pounds of food per visit. Cohen said the majority of food bank visitors are unemployed and looking for work, or employed but not able to make enough money to buy enough food for their household. A large portion of visitors also include independent children under 18 and seniors over 65.

“I think there is this misconception that we’re like a meal program and that most of the folks who come here are homeless,” Cohen said. “But really, that’s not true.”

He said that five to ten percent of food bank visitors are homeless and in actuality, the majority of food bank visitors are able to rent or own their homes.

Whether it is Dumpstering, using food stamps or buying food from a grocery store, Cohen said that the Bellingham Food Bank is yet another resource to provide food for whoever may need it, no matter what their reason.

“People are coming here to save money to go do other stuff. For some people that means paying rent, for some people that means buying medication and for others that means buying clothing for their kids,” Cohen said. “If those are the reasons for nine out of ten people, and one out of ten is a college kid who is saving money to go to the bars on Saturday night, I don’t have a problem with that.”

Learn more about the Bellingham Food Bank on their website at www.bellinghamfoodbank.org.