Volunteers say new Starbucks policy could hurt area’s most vulnerable

Company diverts unused food away from local gleaners, gives to national group instead

A Washougal resident who has helped feed the area’s hungry for nearly a decade worries a new Starbucks corporate policy may divert food away from the local community.

For the past eight years, Pam Clark, the co-founder of the nonprofit ReFuel Washougal, an organization that serves weekly meals to hungry Washougal-area individuals and families, has led a volunteer group that collected unsold food from the Washougal’s Starbucks store and delivered the perishable items daily to local residents in need.

The volunteers’ effort came to a sudden end the second week of 2021, after the Starbucks Corporation directed its Clark County stores to donate their unused food items to Feeding America, the United States’ largest domestic hunger relief organization.

Now, Clark is speaking out in the hope that the Starbucks parent company might make an exception for the Washougal store.

“From what I understand, the Starbucks Corporation has been taking different regions and turning (their food donations) over to Feeding America. It just happened that this year our region was affected,” Clark said. “I was hoping that our store, because of the fact that it’s part of such a small community, could be exempt. Why is one (store) going to make that big a difference? The volume isn’t as high as some of the other stores, but it’s high enough to feed this community.”

The Seattle-based coffee company partnered with Feeding America in 2016 to launch FoodShare, a program which facilitates the donation of ready-to-eat Starbucks meals to food banks and other hunger organizations across the United States.

“Our employees had been advocating for a program that would allow for stores to donate the unsold food,” said Jessica Conradson, manager of the Starbucks Corporation’s social impact communications program. “Previously, similar to the (Washougal) store, stores would set up a pastry donation with a local food bank or church or organization and arrange a pick-up model and do something so that food wasn’t being wasted. Starbucks did some research and quality assurance testing to basically develop a food share program so that we could donate these nourishing, ready-to-eat meals to people that were facing hunger.”

Feeding America’s nationwide network of 200 food banks and 60,000 pantries, meal programs and soup kitchens has received more than 23 million meals from Starbucks stores through the FoodShare program in the past four years.

“Since we announced this partnership, we committed to all of our stores being a part of this program,” Conradson said. “We quite haven’t hit that goal yet, but (the Washougal) store in particular was part of (our most recent) roll-out. We just got the (Washougal) store into the network, which is great.”

Clark worries the Starbucks donations will not make their way back to the local community.

“I don’t know where it’s going,” Clark said. “I’ve never heard of an actual spot in Camas or Washougal that receives food from Feeding America.”

The Clark County stores’ unsold food is delivered to the Portland-based Oregon Food Bank, which distributes it to Packed With Pride, a program that provides food boxes to families in the Tigard-Tualatin (Oregon) School District; Birch Community Services, a Portland-based nonprofit organization that assists families in need; and the Vancouver-based Clark County Food Bank.

The Oregon Food Bank was previously receiving about 425 meals per day, according to Conradson. Now it’s getting 1,500 thanks to the Starbucks donations.

“I know the food isn’t directly going to the (Washougal residents), but it is going to people in need,” Conradson said. “We are seeing that food is being diverted. I think the system is working. What’s really great about leveraging Feeding America’s network of food banks and its delivery and pick-up model, which is pretty innovative, is that it’s in the best interests of rescuing that food. Beyond pastries, we do have the more frozen or temperature-based food that needs to be refrigerated and on refrigerated trucks.”

Chuck Carpenter, a member of Clark’s volunteer group, said several people living at Washougal’s Rama Inn Motel have been affected by Starbucks’ decision.

“Rama takes in homeless people, folks brought in by the police from the streets, people released from rehab — in short, the down-and-outers of our society,” said Carpenter, a Washougal resident and longtime volunteer. “Every Wednesday evening, I went to Starbucks to get their date-expired food and delivered it to Rama. Not everyone there is in need, and the needs vary. But to many, the small bit of food once a week seemed to make a difference. The night manager has expressed the gratitude of the folks that she has passed the food on to.”

“I understand and support the decision of the Starbucks company to donate to Feeding America,” Carpenter added. “I just hope some of what goes to our food banks gets to those in need at Rama.”

Clark, a lifelong Washougal resident and longtime community volunteer, said she fears the company’s changes will impact the area’s most vulnerable residents.

“I’m upset because Camas and Washougal have a huge amount of different clubs, churches and organizations that feed people, clothe people and do so much, and when you take one little piece of that away, the whole chain is getting broken,” she said. “Do (the Starbucks leaders) realize how many people that are in need? We are helping them. Why are they taking this away from us?”

Tanysha Bunch, the manager of the Washougal Starbucks store, supported Clark’s efforts, but said she could not convince her superiors to reverse their decision.

“When I started calling to try to find out how we can get exempt, (Tanysha) called me the next day and said, “Pam, I know that Jan. 8 is the deadline, but I will do whatever it takes.’ I said, ‘I need you to go to your manager and have them call (their manager).’ She said, ‘I did it. I’m behind you. I would like to see the community continue to receive the donations.’ She’s on board. The last time I went in there to pick up food, one of the evening managers told me, ‘I will miss knowing that this food will stay in the community.’ Even the employees feel that loss.”

Conradson said all Starbucks stores “are always open to local partnerships.”

“That’s why we exist,” she said. “We always encourage our stores and store managers to create those relationships with the community. Whether it’s volunteering or whatever kind of support that Washougal needs, we are always open to that. Community partnership is really where the magic happens for us.”

Clark doubts that she will be able to arrange a partnership with another restaurant, but hasn’t completely given up hope that Starbucks representatives will someday ask her to take over the food delivery duties once again.

“Starbucks is a big corporation. They can afford to (donate their food),” she said. “Our local businesses are struggling (due to the COVID-19 pandemic). It would be awfully hard to ask them help me feed people in need every day. I would love to see it come back to us. I’d jump on it in a New York minute.”