Ballard Food Bank

The economic crisis has shown us how fragile the line is between economic health and hardship. Economic strife helps us to see food bank customers not as vagrants, but as our neighbors, ourselves. Ballard Food Bank has always promoted this idea; its motto is “Neighbors helping neighbors.” To better serve their mission, Ballard Food Bank recently made the move from a cramped and inefficient space to a new location along Leary Avenue NW. As their architect, I had the pleasure of helping Ballard Food Bank select a new location and design a space for them that would ultimately empower our neighbors in need.


At the original food bank location, customers had to wait outside in the rain, they made selections of food items from milk crates lined up on a table, and selected produce from an outdoor space barely protected from our weather. Staff shared office space with crates of bananas or boxes of bread. Decidedly, the food bank was struggling just to make food distribution even possible in this space. Their desire to create a calming and welcoming environment for the customers was an unattainable goal.


Not only did the new facility need to support the efficient distribution of food, it needed to be calm and welcoming. A place where community members could feel safe, protected from the elements, and empowered to make informed food and life choices. In the past, food banks often preselected your groceries, placed them on the counter in front of you, and said “Here are your groceries.” Today, many food banks have found ways to treat the customer with respect and dignity, to give the customer the freedom to make their own choices. Ballard Food Bank elected to give more freedom to the customer. Inside the existing warehouse of the new facility, we designed a small grocery store like setting where customers can push shopping carts up and down the aisles, making their own decisions about how to feed their families. The indoor waiting space is large enough for customers to wait in chairs to be called to shop instead of waiting in a line.


In the long term, Ballard Food Bank hopes to use a planned demonstration garden and their demonstration kitchen to help teach customers to make wise choices. The food bank’s director, Nancy McKinney, is a Master Food Preserver certified by WSU. She says she hopes some day the food bank’s kitchen can teach all of us how to cook better with fresh ingredients.


As more and more food banks add things like gardens to their grounds, food banks seem poised to take a more central role as institutions of culinary learning. Because in the long term, as the cost to distribute food across the world increases, more and more of us will find the current system of food distribution too expensive. Going to Ballard Market will feel like going to Whole Foods. Another round of layoffs, another economic crisis could find any one of us reliant on a food bank. Ballard Food Bank has another world to show us, another way of finding and preparing healthy food.


We’re excited to see the Ballard Food Bank shed its old digs, where customers had to wait outside in the rain, where pallets of bread cluttered the offices and hallways. We’re excited to see Nancy and her crew move into a building supportive of the institution’s potential. And we’re thankful we’ve had the opportunity to support members in our own community.


View more images of the design and construction of the food bank at: