It’s potato day at Northwest Harvest’s SODO Community Market, if the overflowing wooden bin near the store’s entrance is any indicator. It could also be watermelon day or banana day, since those bins are heaped high with fresh produce as well. In fact, all the shelves at the market are full, from loaves of bread and cartons of eggs to a cooler packed with grab-and-go sandwiches.

Shortly after the doors open at 8 a.m., shoppers with baskets in hand wind through the space, picking out items as they go. Once they reach the checkout area, volunteers visit with customers as they bag groceries. The only difference between this market and a conventional grocery store is that no money changes hands.

The SODO Community Market, located at 1915 4th Ave. S. in the Seattle’s SoDo neighborhood, replaces Northwest Harvest’s aging downtown center, the Cherry Street Food Bank. Northwest Harvest opened the new market on June 24, and, in doing so, turned the concept of food banking on its head.

Blurring the lines

From the building design and floor layout to the way food is shared to the services offered, the new market barely resembles its predecessor. That’s intentional.

“It’s a vibrant marketplace,” Northwest Harvest CEO Thomas Reynolds says of the new store. He avoids using the term “food bank,” and would love it if everyone else did too. “It’s a place where people come, shop and take home wonderful, nutritious food at no cost.”

While Northwest Harvest’s old Cherry Street location served its purpose getting food to Seattle’s hungry people, its means of distribution was outdated. Volunteers stood behind tables and monitored how much food customers took. The food bank sat on a steep hill, making access difficult for many. And the interior layout didn’t allow enough room for surplus food storage.

In contrast, the SODO space — with its welcoming signage, modular displays and grocery store-style layout — is much more inviting.

“At Northwest Harvest, we reject the idea that there are ‘haves’ and ‘have nots,’” Reynolds says. “We wanted to intentionally blur the lines between a food bank and a grocery store. We want someone to come here and feel like they are just like everyone else.”

More than just a market

While the produce, fresh bread, pasta and other groceries are the market’s most visible offerings, there’s a component to the new space that’s not found at most food banks. Meeting space is available for visiting social service providers. Currently, housing specialists are on hand to meet with shoppers, and Northwest Harvest plans to expand services to include legal advocates and immigration attorneys, all free of cost.

“We often think of people experiencing food insecurity as just needing food,” says Jenn Tennent, Northwest Harvest’s hunger response network director. “In this day and age, people experience myriad different challenges. Food might not be enough.”

The decision to provide these amenities in concert with food distribution was driven by comments Northwest Harvest shoppers offered, describing what they were looking for in terms of wraparound services, says Christina Wong, the nonprofit’s public policy and advocacy director. The concept was shaped by the understanding that customers are as strapped for time as anything else.

“Think about what it’s like for a working mom who only has a few free hours every day,” Wong says. “She needs food, but she also may need to meet with her case worker for cash assistance. The more we can put those services in one location, the easier it is for people.”

Shaped by the shoppers

Almost everything about SODO Community Marketplace — its design, its location, its offerings, even its name — was created from significant input from the market’s customers. Early on, Northwest Harvest staffers convened a participant advisory council whose members helped shape nearly every aspect of the store. 

A clerk helps fill a customer's bags with groceries.
A Northwest Harvest volunteer helps a shopper at the new SODO Community Market. (Photo by Michael Fox)

“We believe it is critical to have the voices of those experiencing food insecurity represented,” says Laura Hamilton, Northwest Harvest’s development director. “Dignity and respect are two values at the core of what we do. Having these people involved in the design of the space speaks to those values.”

The participant advisory council not only weighed in on the types of service providers they wanted to see, but shared their thoughts on the look and feel of the shopping experience. They had a say in the types of fresh produce made available, the variety of beans and grains that are stocked, and other most-desired foods that the market provides. They made suggestions about the which languages to include on the signs above each item on the shelves. (Items are described in English, Spanish, Russian, simplified Chinese and Vietnamese.) And those grab-and-go sandwiches in the deli case? Turns out they’re more popular than Northwest Harvest’s staff realized.

“People love the sandwiches,” says Tennent, but they weren’t offered every day at the old location. “People told us they needed them to hold them over until their next hot meal. … We wouldn’t have known to offer that had we not listened to the council.”

At the SODO market, sandwiches are made available every day the center is open.

We’re here to create real change’

Last July was the first full month the SODO Community Market was open, and 10,000 shoppers walked through its doors — comparable to peak holiday numbers at the Cherry Street location. Counting family members, that’s an estimated 30,000 people who benefitted from the market’s offerings. The number of people served speaks to the popularity of the market and underscores the prevalence of hunger in a region that, on the surface, appears to be so privileged.

“We have an economy that’s booming — but not for everyone,” Wong says. “There are definitely people left behind.”

One in 10 Washingtonians struggle with hunger, according to Northwest Harvest, and one in six children live in a household that struggles to put enough food on the table. One in eight Washingtonians relies on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), better known as food stamps. But food stamps often aren’t enough.

“There’s a misperception that people can eat well and not work on food stamps,” Wong says. “The reality is that SNAP assistance provides only about $1.34 per meal, or about $4 a day.”

Construction of the SODO Community Market was funded by a capital campaign earlier this year that raised $1.9 million over just seven months. Fundraising continues with a buy-a-brick campaign, which will help Northwest Harvest continue to stock the shelves, host service providers and further blur the lines between food bank and grocery store. 

“Some think these are places people come and are handed a box of food,” Tennent says. “More and more, that just isn’t the case.

“We’re here to create real change, real community and real dialog.”