E-W grad finds meaning in new job as food bank director

By Brian Soergel | Sep 08, 2016
Photo by: Brian Soergel Edmonds-Woodway High School graduate Alison Cook is the new executive director of the Edmonds Food Bank.

Alison Cook wanted to be an active part of her community. She found that, and much more, at the Carol Rowe Memorial Food Bank at Edmonds United Methodist Church.

Cook became only the second leader of the 35-year-old food bank when Peggy Kennedy retired earlier this year at age 87.

Cook, 43, has roots here.

She was in the first graduating class of the new Edmonds-Woodway High School in 1991 after previously attending Woodway High. After earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Boston University, she took chemical dependency counseling classes at Edmonds Community College and worked with at-risk youth in group homes in Everett. In 2012, she earned a executive leadership MBA from Seattle University.

Cook worked in marketing, sales, consulting and project development before beginning her new job in May.

“I’m motivated by being part of the front lines of doing something,” said Cook, who lives in Mukilteo with her husband and young son. “Even though I’ve worked on local transportation issues with Sound Transit and for awesome engineers delivering fresh water to countries that needed it, because I’m not an engineer I wasn’t feeling it. What is it that I can do and fit in?”

She grew up attending First United Methodist, so was intrigued when she saw the job posting for the food bank.

“I just thought, Oh my gosh, this could be a great opportunity for me to become part of front lines of involvement in our community,” she said. “Here’s a chance to use my social services skills and business experience to help mold this successful program, to keep it running and bridge it into that next phase.”

Cook said she is still learning about the logistics of running the food bank, meeting the 130 or so active volunteers and making connections with partners in the community such as Northwest Harvest, Volunteers of America and Food Lifeline.

Those partners also include nearby businesses the food bank relies on for donations: Safeway, QFC, Fred Meyer, Trader Joe’s, Costco, IGA and Central Market in Mill Creek, among others.

The Hazel Miller Foundation also provides support.

Volunteers are, of course, a huge part of the success of any food bank. Cook is the only full-time, paid member. With that in mind, Cook is looking to keep the volunteer line running into the future. Many of the them, she said, are in their 80s and 90s.

“Many of our volunteers have been with the food bank for several years,” she said. “In some cases, a couple decades. I will be working with them to recruit successors for when they are ready to retire from the food bank.”

A large need

Kennedy and Gretchen Dixon opened the food bank in October 1981, naming it after an Edmonds woman who ran a much smaller operation from her home.

The food bank didn’t have much room at the church. It didn’t need much, as it served canned and dry goods to about 30 families.

In 2015, the food bank served about 18,000 households a year, which translated to nearly 60,000 individuals and almost 600,000 meals.

Between 300 and 350 families are given food and other supplies each week, Cook said. In August of this year, she and her volunteers served more than 5,300 individuals (that number includes family or other members who don’t necessarily show up), 114 babies, 86 toddlers, 1,670 children, 2,500 adults and 944 seniors.

There were 43 households from Edmonds added in August, and more than 80 from outside Edmonds.

“We serve everyone who comes in,” Cook said. “The founding members did not want to keep it limited to a zip code. They wanted to serve Edmonds residents first, then open it up to anyone else, regardless of where they live.”

Cook said the food bank doesn’t ask for any personal information out of respect for their privacy, just identification to get people registered, proof of address and proof of children’s ages.

“Any information we have on clients’ situations is what they offer us,” she said. “I would like to get an anonymous survey to our clients periodically to find out more details, so we can better address any needs they have.

“What is working at the food bank for them or not, what are the barriers to them finding food security, what benefit does the food bank provide aside from alleviating hunger, and what are the larger concerns they have.”

With trends identified, Cook said she would be able to predict trends matching the larger Puget Sound’s numbers of homelessness and poverty.

Cook already knows that the majority of those served at the food bank are low-income, not the homeless. “I can’t say that I’ve seen an increase in homeless numbers, but my guess is that we will, the way trends are going in the region.”

The problem of homelessness and poverty is overwhelming because there are so many variables that go into it, Cook said. She wants to expand on a holistic perspective so the food bank is not operating alone.

“We have to collaborate,” she said.

That means stocking the reception room with information on schooling, health care, domestic violence, drug and alcohol counseling, and more. Representatives from various agencies also are available – United Health Care stops by twice a month. Other groups also coordinate with the food bank, such as the Edmonds Community College I-CATCH program, which helps low-income residents interested in health-care careers.

The food bank also partners with the Snohomish County Food Bank Coalition, and with Trinity Lutheran Church in Lynnwood to provide breakfast to those in need every Saturday.

Donations

The food bank is always looking for donations – although it has enough paper grocery bags for the moment. Needs include hearty canned food packing protein, such as turkey chili, stew and tuna. Also needed: peanut butter, pasta, canned fruit, applesauce cups and granola bars.

“It’s just so expensive to live here anymore,” Cook said. “It bothers me that someone has to work three jobs, with their children at home.”


Carol Rowe Memorial Food Bank

Where: Edmonds United Methodist Church, 828 Caspers St., Edmonds
Food distribution: Tuesdays beginning at 9:20 a.m.
Information: 425-778-5833; http://www.edmondsumc.org/foodbank
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