“Orcas Workers Must Be Able to Live Healthy Lives”

An interview with Amanda Sparks, the first executive director of the Orcas Island Food Bank, by Food Bank volunteer and board member Rick Rhoads.

by Rick Rhoads

Food Bank volunteer, board member

Rick: Amanda, you were hired as manager of the Food Bank in April 2020, a few weeks after Covid-19 was declared a pandemic and a national emergency. In September 2021, the board promoted you to the newly created position of executive director. As ED, how will your role change?

Amanda: With the huge increase in demand resulting from mass layoffs and the need to add storage capacity, redesign food distribution for COVID safety, and recruit younger volunteers to replace those 60+ and vulnerable, day-to-day management was far from routine and demanded much of my time and attention. Nevertheless, together with the board, I worked on longer range, more strategic issues, such as collaborations with other human services organizations, like OCRC, and with food-access stakeholders, like farms, schools, and bulk-food distributors. I applied the concepts of diversity, equity, and inclusion to staffing; to providing age-, health-, and culturally relevant foods to customers, and to reaching out to the island community. As ED, I’ll be able to devote more time and attention to strategic issues.

Rick: Such as?

Amanda: I’ll mention two. One: We need a larger and better designed space to implement our current and future programs. We are exploring how we might create such a space. Two: Ensuring San Juan County has a voice at the table is vital given our remote and rural uniqueness. We work closely with legislators and with the Washington State Department of Agriculture and other statewide food-access and food-justice organizations to steer funding decisions that best support our communities. For example, we advocated for direct purchasing funds for local produce and proteins to ensure that those dollars support the local food system instead of going to large, out-of-state companies. We live on a small island, but we need to think at state and national levels.

Rick: Who will do the day-to-day managing?

Amanda: Alison O’Toole has become our new operations manager. Mary Heydron is our new office manager. Both worked at the Food Bank as 2020 AmeriCorps service members. I feel honored that they made longer commitments as they became devoted to the work we are doing and the culture we are creating. Recently, we brought on three new AmeriCorps service members, Yesenia Armas, Luka Fairweather, and Rachel Barron.

Rick: You learned to be a food bank manager on the fly. Will you learn the ED role the same way?

Amanda: “Yes and…” as they say in improv. As you know, Rick, the board has enabled me to participate in an 8-month, Zoom-based, nonprofit management course at UW. I constantly connect the information I learn in creative and collaborative ways, so this investment in time and tuition will benefit our organization and our community.

Rick: When I tell friends on the mainland that I volunteer at the Food Bank, they often ask why there’s a food bank in a community as wealthy as Orcas Island. What is your answer?

Amanda: From 13 years of owning and managing a small business in Eastsound, I’d already learned that most businesses on the island cannot be profitable and pay employees enough to live, given the high cost of necessities here. Without substantial community investment to support local human services, including food, housing, and resource assistance, folks are either undernourished and heading towards health issues or are sliding closer to moving off-island. We can’t afford to lose any more of the workforce. Restaurants, grocery, retail, and the trades all suffer from lack of employees. The mass layoffs resulting from loss of the 2020 tourist season created a food emergency, but even when people are working, many do not earn enough to live healthy lives. Most of our Food Bank customers work; some work two or three jobs.

Rick: How can the Food Bank help?

Amanda: The federal government raised the annual income qualification for food assistance to $51,520, 400% of the so-called “poverty level.” For every additional household member, add $18,160. An estimated 50% of Orcas Island’s population, about 2,600 individuals, qualify for food assistance.

I encourage working folks and retirees who qualify to register at the Food Bank. You will get a warm welcome. Waiting until you’re desperate could result in your moving off the island. People need to know that their economic distress is primarily related to systemic inequality, not to something they are doing wrong. To my friends and neighbors, I don’t want to live in this community without you.

The Food Bank can help you stay here and stay healthy. To those who can donate to or volunteer at the Food Bank, we welcome you help in making our community thrive.