John Neill walked into a Starbucks coffee shop early Wednesday morning looking for a little caffeine jolt to start his day before going to the Tri-Cities Food Banks, where he volunteers as the executive director.
While he was in line, a woman he had never met pointed at him in recognition.
"Aren't you the food bank guy?"
He smiled and nodded, and she handed him a cash donation.
Neill said that has been happening a lot since a June 30 story in the Herald detailed the rising demand and diminishing stocks at the Richland, Kennewick and Benton City food banks that Neill oversees.
People he doesn't know -- and some he does -- walk up and hand him cash or checks. It might be $10 or $100. A few people even gave $1,000.
But it all adds up to the food banks being able to continue feeding hungry Tri-Citians for a few more weeks until fresh produce starts coming in from area farms, he said.
"We haven't had to turn anybody away or restrict the amount of food we're giving anybody," Neill told the Herald. "It's still a real challenge to get meat and those kinds of things. Canned vegetables we have to buy. Fresh vegetables are just starting to come in. We're starting to see some, but it'll be another 30 days or so before we start seeing the fresh vegetables coming in any quantity."
The low stocks in recent months can be attributed to a variety of factors. For one, more people are lining up looking for help.
"We're no longer seeing just the chronically poor," he said.
Neill said many of the three food banks' clients are seniors living on Social Security trying to stretch their dollars to pay rising costs for housing, gas and utilities.
The food banks also see a number of college students. He thinks this is because Columbia Basin College and Washington State University Tri-Cities don't have on-campus housing or cafeterias with meal plans like traditional campuses, and like the seniors, students are struggling to stretch their dollars to pay all of their living costs, plus books and tuition.
Another group Neill said he was seeing more of includes people who are newly unemployed or underemployed -- a category Deryl and Deanna Johnson of West Richland fall into.
Deryl Johnson told the Herald that his wife lost her job in child care last year, and he was seeing fewer contracts as a self-employed computer repair technician.
"Business has been slow," Johnson said.
With their income reduced, they have had to make some tough choices with their budget.
"When gas was up over $4 per gallon, we had to choose between putting gas in the tank and food in the fridge," Deryl Johnson said.
The couple have turned to the Richland food bank a few times in recent months for enough food to fill the gaps.
"We're just thankful it's here," he said.
Another factor in the shortages has been reductions in state food distributions and food coming from grocery stores as stores exercise tighter control over inventory.
While the recent spate of donations has helped, Neill said what the food bank's need is a steady source of income such as an endowment.
The Tri-Cities Food Banks nonprofit relies on donations as its sole source of income, and gas and utility costs have risen faster than cash donations have come in during recent months.
"We're way over budget on gas," Neill said. "Telephone is higher than we've seen it in the past -- higher than we've budgeted for."
And the equipment the nonprofit uses is aging. Refrigerator and freezer units are starting to need more repairs than they are worth.
"But we're surviving," Neill said.
None of the donation money is spent on salaries. Everyone who works at the three food banks -- including Neill -- does so for free.
Sarah Skinner of Richland, who has volunteered for about two years, said working at the food bank has given her a new perspective on the people who come in looking for help.
"I have found it more rewarding lately," she said. "Sometimes, you get tired. Lately, I've been noticing the people. I'm focusing on the people who are hungry and having a hard time, looking them in the eye more and paying attention to each individual who comes in."
It can be hard when stocks are as low as they were in June for Skinner to tell people who are worried about feeding their families that they can only have a little and must come back later.
"I think sometimes you just have to be nice," she said. "I talk them through it and tell them to come back in two weeks. We have a policy that they can come back anytime for bread. At least that's something. It's not always enough, but it's something."
To donate money or food:
-- Tri-Cities Food Banks: Kennewick Food Bank, 420 Deschutes Ave., Kennewick, 99336; Richland Food Bank, 321 Wellsian Way, Richland, 99352; Benton City Food Bank, 712 10th St., Benton City, 99320.
-- Michelle Dupler: 582-1543; email@example.com