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caption: Volunteer Morgan Keuler talks with café manager Anthony Anderson about the menu for opening day: roasted butternut squash soup.
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Volunteer Morgan Keuler talks with café manager Anthony Anderson about the menu for opening day: roasted butternut squash soup.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

New Ballard Food Bank makes asking for help feel more like a day at the supermarket

The Ballard Food Bank opens its new location on 14th Avenue Northwest on Monday. It includes a larger shopping area, designed to look and feel like a grocery store. And there’s a café where you don’t have to pay to eat lunch.

Food banks have been evolving over the years. There's a push to design them to look and feel less like social services.

The new Ballard Food Bank takes that thinking to the next level. Now, more of its services are integrated into the shopping, which is meant to feel like the inside of a high-end grocery store. For example, a special service providing ready-to-eat meals for people without homes now looks like a deli counter. Toiletries are now just another section of the store, rather than a separate line visitors have to stand in.

The goal is to remove the stigma associated with accepting support. “Asking for help is really hard. I think people are always embarrassed. Right? They feel shame if they have to ask for help," Executive Director Jen Muzia said.

Muzia says since the start the pandemic, asking for aid has become more acceptable. "Because people seem to have a greater understanding as to why people need to ask for help.”

The food bank's design also seeks to make asking for help feel normal, by making the spaces where services happen feel familiar.

“And so when you create something that looks like something they would normally see – I think it really provides a level of dignity that they wouldn’t have otherwise," Muzia said.

caption: Jen Muzia, Executive Director of the Ballard Food Bank.
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Jen Muzia, Executive Director of the Ballard Food Bank.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

The Ballard Food Bank advances the concept even further with a new café located on the corner of 14th Ave NW and NW Leary Way.

Anthony Anderson, who manages the Kindness Café, says he hopes it will eventually become a neighborhood hangout. “Anyone can come in regardless of their economic stature. So you could have someone who is here to shop; sitting down having a cup of coffee, along with someone who works at the Trader Joe’s, or someone who works at the Carter Subaru."

The café is meant to feel like any other coffee shop. A casual visitor might not notice a big difference — visitors don't need to pay.

Anderson hopes the strategy of paying it forward will pay off in the long run. "The hope is, if you have the capacity, that there’ll be opportunity for you to be able to give back.”

caption: Anthony Anderson.
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Anthony Anderson.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

That's what happened to Anderson. He used to work for Microsoft. He first volunteered for the food bank several years ago, and now he works there full time, running "special projects" like this café.

Executive Director Jen Muzia says the number of people using the food bank more than doubled during the pandemic.

caption: Ballard Food Bank.
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Ballard Food Bank.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

When staff were running a drive-through at the old location, some people would arrive by bus, while others would arrive in newer vehicles. One customer even pulled up in a three- year-old Mercedes-Benz, Anderson recalled. He says he learned not to judge people based on surface appearances.

The food bank has faced challenges. Because of shipping delays, most of their shelves haven’t arrived yet. And so on opening day next week, things could look a little disorganized.