By: Mark Klaas
Gail Yamasaki smiled as children sang in the park on a sun-kissed afternoon.
A small but grand celebration for Yamasaki, her family and the Marshallese communities of Auburn, Kent and elsewhere.
A vital state program has been fully restored – thanks to a budget agreement signed by Gov. Jay Inslee this summer – that will help put food on the table for many struggling, dependent immigrant families.
For five years, families, local leaders and anti-hunger advocates fought deep cuts in the State Food Assistance program, claiming those cuts unfairly burdened immigrant families.
But those families spoke up. The Children's Alliance – a strategic organization working for families and children – stepped in, as did other agencies, organizations and legislators.
"Without the Alliance, we would not have been able to get this done," said Yamasaki, of Auburn, celebrating the victory at Veterans Memorial Park with family and friends, and local and state leaders last Saturday. "It looks like it's really paid off. We really appreciate what they've done for us."
People from the Marshall Islands are governed by an arrangement between the U.S. and their country that allows them to live and work in America, generally without a visa. But under changes to welfare laws in the late 1990s, Marshallese immigrants couldn't receive federal food stamps.
The state came up with the food program to support the Marshallese and other groups who hadn't been in the country long enough to qualify for food stamps. The program strategically leverages resources to make sure food stamps reach thousands of children in immigrant families.
But given program cuts of the past, especially those in the throes of the Great Recession, area families struggled to eat and meet basic needs.
But that changed with the 2015-17 state operating budget, which makes significant investments in children and families.
Paola Maranan, executive director of the Children's Alliance, thanked the many voices who called for the full restoration of the program.
"Through those years, you have led the way, from parents, grandparents and youths who courageously spoke the truth about your own experiences, to grassroots organizations that stood in solidarity with families, to service providers and food bank providers that spoke up for equity, to legislators who advocated among your own colleagues to right this wrong," Maranan said.
Northwest Harvest and the Auburn Food Bank were among the many advocates that joined the campaign.
Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, and Rep. Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, among others, made a push in the Legislature.
"From sitting in the Kent Library and listening to families and parents and kids talking about how important this program is, it truly called me to action and to help get this done," Fain told the crowd.
Sullivan applauded the efforts but said more work needs to be done for struggling families throughout the state.
"We can't stop here. We need to continue to push for programs and services, whether it's State Food Assistance, whether it's other human services, whether it's health care, whether it's education for our children," he said