Photo by Chaunce Shrewsbury: Eatonville's Marie Williams organizes donated canned goods on a table outside her garage. Marie Williams' husband, Phil, started a food-sharing program in Eatonville to give back to the community.
Photo by Chaunce Shrewsbury: Eatonville's Marie Williams organizes donated canned goods on a table outside her garage. Marie Williams' husband, Phil, started a food-sharing program in Eatonville to give back to the community.
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Dozens of Eatonville and nearby residents are gathering daily outside local marine-electrician Phil Williams’s home to collect free food and goods.

Williams, 34, began collecting and giving away donated food and goods four weeks ago. Williams said he wants to give back to Eatonville for harm he caused nearly a decade ago. Williams was arrested and sentenced to prison in 2013 for drug and theft crimes committed in Eatonville. He was released in 2015.

“This is one of my ways to give back to the community that I took from,” Williams said. “When I went to prison, I made the conscious decision to change myself for the better.”

After being released from prison, Williams donated time to Joseph’s Storehouse, a food bank run by the Living Word Assembly of God Church in Eatonville for decades. The food bank closed a little over a year ago, however. The closure left a gap in resources for many families.

With the food bank closed, families facing difficulties during the COVID 19 pandemic and his desire to help others, Williams said he saw an opportunity to atone for the wrongs he had caused his community.

Williams’s efforts are part of the international Food is Free Project. Williams said he had learned about the international movement while browsing Facebook and became inspired. The movement began in Texas seven years ago as a small community garden in front of a home. The idea expanded to several homes within the neighborhood and has since grown to over 350 locations worldwide as a community garden and food-share program.

“The opportunity came up, and I felt compelled to want to branch it out here for our local families that are in need,” Williams wrote in a private message on Facebook.

Williams established the Facebook group Food is Free Eatonville, which joins Food is Free Project branches in Tacoma, Lakewood, Puyallup, South Hill and others throughout the state. Nearly 400 people have joined Williams's group in the last month.

Soon after establishing Eatonville’s chapter, Williams was contacted by David Thompson, leader of Tacoma’s chapter, the largest in the world. Thompson helped Williams obtain food at the Eatonville chapter. Thompson’s group holds 501(c)(3) nonprofit status through a fiscal sponsor, which allows the group to receive assistance from federal programs. Thompson has brought in thousands of boxes from the United States Department of Agriculture Farmer to Families Food Box Program, which has helped feed Eatonville and other chapters within the region.

The federal program has provided $2.67 billion to help distribute 70 million boxes of agricultural products to those in need from May 15 through August, according to an Aug. 25 USDA press release. According to the same press release, President Donald Trump allocated another $1 billion for the program on Aug. 25.

According to Thompson, who has been dealing with the packages directly, the program will pause for 30 days and then resume. The project will end on Oct. 31 unless additional funding is provided.

Thompson said that if the USDA program ends, he will find a way to continue supporting Eatonville and other branches. Thompson said this week he wants to establish an umbrella organization called Food is Free Washington with 501(c)(3) status. He said he hopes to work with all independent food-sharing branches, including Eatonville's, under the parent organization.

“I want to make it easier for everybody else so they can get the fiscal sponsorship and start to be able to get grants for building their projects,” Thompson said.

In addition to support from Thompson through the USDA program, Williams has received toilet paper, socks, clothes, cold packs, ice chests and lots of food from other sources that he has distributed. One resident was able to supply 75 lbs of bacon, and another has been delivering farm fresh eggs for people to enjoy for free. Williams recently moved a fridge outside the front of the house to keep more items fresh.

Williams’s four children, in-laws and wife help support the project. His teenage sons, Isaiah and Phillip, are regularly seen carrying boxes out to the vehicles of elderly individuals who need support.

On Friday, an elderly woman who wished to remain anonymous thanked the Williams’s family for their dedication while picking up items for her church.

“I think it is a wonderful thing they are doing and that it is a blessing,” she said. “I’m very grateful that this is happening now.”

Williams wrote that he will continue to have food outside his house as long as it is available.

“There will always be food for people in front of my house,” he wrote. “I don’t want hours to hinder someone from getting food. We are always out checking it.”

Food and other items are in front of Williams’s garage at 150 Baumgartner Place N. For more information about the Food is Free Eatonville group or to contact Williams, visit www.facebook.com/groups/316543709402341.