Decade after decade, committed leadership and dedicated volunteers at The Food Bank @ St. Mary’s have worked tirelessly to counter the prevalence of hunger in Seattle.
They have met each new wave of refugees and immigrants with compassion. They have witnessed policy changes that created a new class of working poor. They have seen the unhoused become a regular part of life in the neighborhood and city.
The origins of The Food Bank @ St. Mary’s date back to the 1930s, when the pastor at St. Mary’s Church opened his personal food closet to share canned food and money with those in crisis. By 1946, the food pantry received nonprofit designation from the IRS. Parishioners donated food and stored it in a cupboard in the basement of the church rectory.
By the 1970s, the pantry became a recognized food bank, open to all, with regular hours and steady service year-round. People affected by the Boeing layoffs turned to The Food Bank @ St. Mary’s for assistance, and the rectory garage was given over to food storage and distribution.
The food bank, then still a small volunteer program run by the church, continued to alleviate hunger and food insecurity through another severe economic downturn in the early 1980s. Increased need meant more expansion, this time into the rectory laundry room next to the garage; the pastor's parking space was commandeered for a walk-in cooler.
Yet space was still tight! The church was used to prepare for Thanksgiving and Christmas; paper grocery bags filled with holiday groceries lined each pew. “I think St Mary's is actually a big food bank with a little church attached,” the pastor declared with a laugh. (The food bank does not receive funding from the Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle; the Archdiocese continues to donate space in the rectory basement for our operations.)
As the need for our hunger relief services continued to grow, it became clear the food bank had expanded beyond the scope of a parish-run organization and formally incorporated in May 1996. In June 1997, due to the combination of an overwhelming increase in clients and limited resources, The Food Bank @ St. Mary’s was forced to set service area boundaries to those living within Seattle city limits.
By 2011, a newly-built operations center with walk-in freezer and additional storage space stood in the parking lot next to the rectory, allowing for expansion of the home delivery program.
Its location and accessibility to major transportation hubs, and the relationships it has forged with grocery stores and community members over the years, have contributed to The Food Bank @ St. Mary’s becoming one of the largest food banks in Seattle.
With each passing decade, advocates continue to respond with abundance and generosity.
A parishioner of St. Mary’s Church and regular volunteer once said their experience at the Food Bank could be summed up in four simple words: “Mercy given, mercy received.”