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Shelves shuffled at food bank

Ed Harris of Bainbridge Island shops at the Helpline House food bank Monday.  - Julie Busch photo
Ed Harris of Bainbridge Island shops at the Helpline House food bank Monday.
— image credit: Julie Busch photo

Helpline offers a ‘mini-mart’ setting for those needing a bit more in the larder.

It’s bad enough falling on hard times. To have to ask for help makes people feel even worse.

Helpline House wants islanders to walk through its doors with confidence, not dread. To this end, staffers have retooled their food bank operation to make it easier for islanders to “shop.”

And when they do, finding such “extras,” as corn chips for school lunchces and Oreos, make a big difference, too.

“It keeps them from feeling like ‘they’re eating poor,’” said Helpline food bank manager Marilyn Gremse.

The makeover has been in the planning stages for some time. Finally, with new refrigerators and freezers in place and a streamlined layout, clients are reaping the benefits.

The reformatted area increases client access to the food and allows more self-service, Gremse said.

The lobby is home to glass-fronted freezer and refrigerator units, while the back area is laid out like a small market, which Gremse and her volunteer staff call “the Helpline Mini Mart.”

Clients who select offerings from the freezer and refrigerator don’t need to check in or show proof of residency, Gremse said.

In the lobby, they may also help themselves to the bread and pastries and other items that are available, such as meal-in-a-bag kits assembled by the Helpline House nutritionist, canned yams and pumpkin, beans and donations from Northwest Harvest.

Clients do check in to shop in the “mini mart” area. Here they pick up a shopping basket, peruse the shelving units and choose the items they want.

Volunteers give out items that are purchased by Helpline House, such as meat, milk and a few staples. A person can freely choose 75 percent to 80 percent of the food, Gremse said.

The intention of the food bank is to serve Bainbridge Island residents.

“If they’re transient or live in their cars, that’s considered emergency food recipients and we don’t discriminate,” Gremse said. “We’re not going to send them away.”

However, non-residents should then find resources where they live, she said, adding there are exceptions to this, too. For example, some of the food banks in other towns are only open twice a week.

“More and more we have clientele that have those situations. They may not live here, but they’re members of our society. They provide their services here,” Gremse said.

“I work in a coalition of other food bank directors across the county and the state. They don’t have nearly the donation base we do day to day.”

Although Helpline House donors – residents and stores such as Town & Country Market – give generously, the food bank does have its needs.

“One of our highest needs right now is milk...basic nutrition. It’s harder to keep up with (because) it’s very expensive and it takes cash money,” Gremse said.

Helpline’s milk fund offers an easy way for islanders to donate milk. Customers of Smith Brothers Farms may designate an amount of milk to be delivered to Helpline House.

The charge for this milk is added to the customers’ monthly bills.

Currently, Helpline House can only give one carton of milk to families with fewer than four members. Paying for the milk “impacts other things we can purchase,” Gremse said.

Helpline accepts produce, “homegrown and otherwise,” and Gremse encourages gardeners to plant a row for the food bank.

There is an on-going need for staples, such as canned ravioli and beef stew.

“They’re easy for people in crisis to eat,” Gremse said.

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