On a weekend morning, the Good Cheer Food Bank on Bayview Road is a beehive of activity. Master gardener Cary Peterson directs a half-dozen volunteers tending beds of organically-grown vegetables in the garden. In the kitchen, more volunteers fill 3-qt. plastic bags with dried beans, sugar and rice. Food bank customers come in to shop, guiding carts through the small but well-stocked grocery store. And in the other side of the building, delivery trucks pull up to unload donations of clothing and household goods to be sorted, priced and sent off to Good Cheer thrift shops located in Langley and Ken’s Corner.
Measured by revenues, Good Cheer is the second largest charitable organization on South Whidbey Island (behind WICA) and a model for food banks everywhere. Established in 1962, Good Cheer set out to be a self-sufficient means of helping feed local families in need while also fostering community. Its founders wisely coupled thrift stores with the food bank, providing a year-round source of income to augment food donations from individuals, area grocery stores, farms and commercial food producers.
“Our thrift stores provide us with 60 percent of our revenue,” says Good Cheer’s executive director, Kathy McLaughlin McCabe, noting that the stores alone raised close to $800,000 last year. The thrift stores thrive, she says, because Whidbey Islanders are generous, resource-rich, and have a recycling ethic which extends to their wardrobes, garages and attics.
“This is a community that really takes care of its own,” she adds. This is evident in the fact that more than 700 volunteers help to keep costs down and food flowing. The volunteers include community leaders, business owners, retirees, teens, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, and Good Cheer food recipients themselves. All augment a paid staff of just 16 individuals.
Good Cheer volunteers serve as thrift store clerks and food bank stockers, gardeners, truck drivers, handymen, office helpers and board members. Additional help comes in the form of the “Gleeful Gleeners” program in which orchard owners and volunteer pickers harvest crops from local orchards and farms. Even school kids help out, providing their labor for the Southwest Elementary School, Langley Middle School and Southwest Academy garden projects, which yielded more than 1,200 pounds of produce last year.
Whidbey Telecom and its owners, the Henny family, hold a special interest in supporting Good Cheer. Marion Henny helped guide the capital campaign which raised the funds for the 4.5 acre distribution center/garden/food bank located on Bayview Road. Whidbey Telecom is also a “Honey Bee” sponsor, donating substantially to the annual fund supporting the “Fresh Food On the Table” program. This fund helps provide fresh produce the year around. Additionally, the Henny family and Whidbey Telecom employees have assisted in a variety of community projects benefiting the charity.
Food banks like Good Cheer are becoming vitally important in staving off hunger in America. Each year, roughly 47 million individuals, half of them children, receive federal food assistance under the Federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), often referred to as the “food stamp” program.
In 2013, across-the-board Federal tax cuts mandated by the sequester reduced SNAP benefits by more than $5 billion. New budget proposals threaten to cut another $40 billion over the next 10 years. This represents more food than all of the food charities in the U.S. currently provide. Charities like Good Cheer will be pressed to fill in the gap.
“In previous years, we saw fewer than 900 families come through the doors. This past November, that jumped to more than 1,000,” said Shawn Nowlin, outreach coordinator. “If SNAP benefits are cut further, it’s certain to impact families in our community.”
Pragmatically, that will make Good Cheer even more critical to South Whidbey families in need. Thankfully, it is a charity that nearly everyone can support, either through volunteer time, thrift store donations, thrift store purchases, food donations and cash donations (especially important, as each dollar is leveraged to buy $9 in food).
“Good Cheer really captures the spirit of this community. Nearly everyone contributes in some way,” said Nowlin. “People here work hard, and they want their charitable money and their time to have a substantial community benefit. Good Cheer honors that spirit.”
Check out the Good Cheer Foodbank and Thrift Stores website, www.goodcheer.org, and learn more about contributing to this vital charity.