By Larry Copenhaver –
Food Bank Feeds 187,000 Annually
Hunger hurts. And in Southern Arizona there is plenty of hunger to go around.
But there are many people working through the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, doing all they can to shorten the lines at food distribution points and teach strategies that help families put food on the table.
Some 187,000 individuals are served each year through the food bank’s hunger relief – direct food handouts – and another 17,000 are being served through hunger prevention and education services, said food bank CEO Michael McDonald.
The effort, implemented in concert with 250 corporate and agency partners such as Tucson Unified School District, the Salvation Army and Tucson Medical Center, is threefold – feed the hungry, attack hunger by changing attitudes regarding nutrition, and work to lesson poverty, McDonald said. The food bank, located at 3003 S. Country Club Road, is a big operation. It serves people in Pima, Cochise, Graham, Greenlee and Santa Cruz counties.
“While we do see our work as a charity, we also see our work as part of economic development – and that’s why we are increasingly focusing on our clients growing food or making a living through food-related jobs such as in the hospitality industry,” he said.
The latter focuses on learning a trade to grow, prepare and/or serve food.
“Many people grow food at our farm or at one of our 200 community gardens where they can produce food in excess of their family’s needs, then sell it at one of our farmers markets and make some money,” McDonald said. “Once they get a following of customers, they can put a brand name to their food.”
For example, “A lady is making tortillas for one of the local grocery chains,” McDonald said “She started out coming to one of the food banks for some hunger relief, and she learned about gardening and food preparation, so the trajectory of her life has changed because of some of our educational work. We’d like to see that get big.
“We would like to see that 17,000 figure in the hunger prevention programs grow and see fewer people depending on the free food.”
Extensive gardening programs are supported by the food bank in schools, home gardening programs, community gardens and a kitchen that provides prepared meals.
“We also sponsor 10-week culinary arts training for high school students, much like they might get at Pima Community College. Students are not paid for their participation, but they don’t have to pay for it either,” said Katie Maxwell, who serves as volunteer board president of the food bank. The goal for the students is to learn life skills and kitchen skills.
They are taught how to construct a resume, do a job interview, budgeting skills – all the things they need to be successful in the workplace. “And we help place people with employers. I think we have a placement rate in the 80 percentile range,” Maxwell said. “We help them find a job so they are not dependent upon food handouts.”
Another focus is the recognition that what you eat affects your health, McDonald said. “For that, the food bank provides information on diet and nutrition choices. We promote informed choices and with that more produce.
“Another significant area of focus is food coming out of Mexico that does not have a buyer. There is a lot – and we try to get it. In May, the food bank acquired about 5 million pounds of produce that came out of Northern Mexican but did not have a buyer.
“Without a buyer, that produce ends up in the landfill. All that produce is inspected and gone over by food safety teams. Of the 5 million pounds, about 90,000 pounds of the food ended up in the landfill because it did not meet standards, but had we not intervened, all 5 million pounds would have ended up in the dump.
“We have a refrigeration facility in Nogales. We have refrigerated trucks. And we have staff on the border talking to produce broker houses every day. Broker houses are under pressure to move produce off their docks, so we have to be there to get it out or it will be thrown out.”
The food bank has a great responsibility to ensure every dime that comes in for hunger relief is used efficiently, Maxwell said. Last year, 97 cents of every dollar went to support the goals of the bank. The nonprofit has an annual cash flow of $60 million.
“The real work is helping people in the line get assistance – but all the time we are working to shorten that line by lessening the need for assistance,” she said. “Our clients want self-sufficiency. They don’t want handouts.
“In Southern Arizona, the food insecurity rate is higher than both the state and the national averages,” Maxwell said. In some areas of Tucson, 97 percent of students come from homes that fall into that category and qualify for government supported free meal programs at schools. That does not count food needs on the weekends or during the summer.