Emergency Food Services Respond to Bag Fees

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Another day, another angle on the disposable shopping bag fee. Today I learned of an issue that not only identifies a real problem … it also offers an opportunity for Seattle's community to respond with solutions that will help everyone.

I just got off the phone with Paige Collins, manager of Providence Regina House, a weekly food and clothing bank run out of the South Park Neighborhood Center. Collins is all for reducing waste and promoting a cleaner environment, but she said that the announcement of the fee planted a big worry in her mind: how will the needy clients who use Seattle's emergency food services carry their goods home?

It's a bigger problem than it seems. Providence Regina House currently relies on donated plastic bags, and any money that must be spent to buy new bags comes straight out of the bank's food budget. Last year, Collins invested $4,000 of those precious funds in 1,000 heavy canvas bags, but has watched about three-fourths of those break or get lost within about nine months. Because Providence Regina House is only open once per week, Collins routinely sees clients haul out 70-plus pounds of food to feed their large families, some with five or six children at home. Cheaper canvas bags break under these conditions, but "these people are needy, and they're not going to turn down food just because their bags are too full." Some clients bring their own bags, boxes, or even laundry baskets to carry food, but most still do not.

To make it clear, Collins and others who agree with her don't feel that the answer is to fight the bag fee. Rather, the city needs to make a plan for relief to emergency food services in addition to its other plans surrounding the fee.

The City of Seattle has pledged to distribute at least one free bag per family, with special attention paid to low-income communities, in preparation for the fee's launch in January. But one bag per household will not be enough, and, as Collins says, "these people really do not have even $6 to spend on the six canvas bags they'll need to carry their groceries." Also, as Collins notes, these bags don’t last forever, yet there is no policy to provide low-income residents with replacements for bags that wear or out break.

Collins has already voiced her opinion to local legislators, and has been invited by city officials to join the committee that's working on identifying and addressing the problems associated with the new policy. "I really think they're going to do a lot to make sure that the low-income families end up with enough bags … they're going to give them away at community centers and Boys and Girls Clubs … and make sure that social services have bags to give their clients." As she points out, the city will receive 15 cents per bag once the fee is in place, so one idea is to put some (or all) of that money into emergency food services. Realistically, however, much of that money will also be needed to fund education, outreach and implementation of the new policy.

A few opportunities for at least short-term solutions seem to present themselves here. When conventions and conferences pass through Seattle, sponsors often print logo tote bags to distribute. Could the leftovers be funneled to emergency food services? Could Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, Safeway or another grocer that's already printing affordable canvas bags for its shoppers arrange a partnership in exchange for distributing their logo on bags used all over town?

What's best is that finding a solution now will not only help when the bag fee begins, it will actually improve the current situation. According to Collins, relying on donated plastic bags for use at the food bank is not an easy solution, nor a sustainable one. She currently spends time emailing, pleading and collecting bags from her own home (and her mother's) just to ensure that there are enough bags at the bank every Saturday.

While a better long-term solution is being figured out, you can help. If you've got extra canvas totes around the house (many of us receive more than we need as freebies at community and business events, store giveaways, etc.), drop them by your local food bank, and encourage your friends and neighbors to do the same. Better yet, know anyone who is in charge of a giveaway and might be faced with a crate of leftover bags? They can donate them directly, or contact Food Lifeline or Northwest Harvest, regional organizations that will make sure they help those who need them most.

Photo credit: Flickr/homemadeoriginals, licensed by Creative Commons.