Call Me Wish Meal

The Community Food Bank celebrates 25 years of feeding impoverished Tucsonans.

Every night across Tucson, some mothers put their hungry children to bed with the certain knowledge the next morning will bring another scramble for food. Thirty-seven years after then-President Lyndon Johnson called for a national War on Poverty, non-government agencies directly involved with the day-to-day alleviation of hunger are still on the front lines providing food for the growing number of people in need.

The efforts of Tucson's Community Food Bank somewhat mitigate this struggle for the most basic necessity. The Food Bank began during the administration of Mayor Lew Murphy and celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. But Charles "Punch" Woods, who has been with the organization for 23 years and serves as its executive director, reports a troubling trend: Poverty in Tucson is growing at a faster rate than the population. Though the most recent U.S. Census Bureau figures point to a reduction in poverty across the nation, Woods says he has witnessed an "amazing" increase in the level of need in Tucson over the years.

This is not surprising.

While Census Bureau figures tell one story, in 1999 the U.S. Department of Agriculture released data indicating the number of "food insecure" individuals had increased by 3 million adults and 2 million children since 1997. Food insecurity is "limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways," according to the Journal of Nutrition. More than 30 million people in the U.S. aren't sure where their next meal is coming from, according to figures compiled by a group of non-profit agencies working in collaboration.

But statistics are the purview of people with full bellies; if you are hungry the numbers are immaterial. What matters is finding enough food to get through the day, or if you're lucky, the next few days. This is where the Community Food Bank comes in. Working out of its Multi-Service Center at the corner of South Country Club Road and 36th Street, the Food Bank provides assistance in several ways. In addition to distributing emergency food boxes, the organization operates Food Plus, Senior Brown Bag, Value Food Purchase and community gardens.

The Food Bank has been supplying emergency food boxes since it first began, hence this program is the most widely known in the community. More than 200 boxes a day are distributed through a wide range of social service agencies that request the emergency food for their clients. Each box contains enough food for three days for each family member. People often turn to the Food Bank because they have run out of money for food or there is a delay in receiving food stamps. A family or individual can get a maximum of six boxes in 180 days unless a social service agency requests an exception. "We have no rules, just guidelines," Woods said.

Food Plus began here in the late 1980s thanks to the lobbying efforts of Jim Kolbe, a Food Bank board member, said Woods. It's federally funded as the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, and Tucson is one of fewer than 50 cities nationwide participating in the USDA program. Food Plus serves the needs of low-income pre- or postnatal mothers, children and the elderly. The Pima County Health Department determines eligibility for this program, and participants are required to requalify every six months.

Senior Brown Bag provides a monthly supply of supplemental food for the elderly. This program serves approximately 3,000 seniors each month through requesting agencies or neighborhood centers.

Value Food Purchase has no income-eligibility requirements and is open to everyone in the community. Each month the Food Bank sells between $30,000 and $40,000 worth of food through this program. Purchasers can choose between a pre-packaged selection of groceries for $10 or $15, or buy individual items. A typical $15 package may include canned vegetables, soup, tuna, beans, macaroni and cheese, cookies, fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as several pounds of meat and other items.

The Community Food Gardens provide an opportunity for people to have access to "nutritional and culturally acceptable foods," said Woods. Gardens are located at the Multi-Service Center, Pueblo Elementary School and the new Quincie Douglas Neighborhood Center at 36th Street and Kino Boulevard. Backyard gardens are also encouraged as a part of this program.

The Community Food Bank manages all its programs with merely 50 paid employees. Volunteers are a crucial part of the Food Bank: 56,000 hours of volunteer labor account for approximately half of the annual effort required to keep the Food Bank operational. And that labor moves vast quantities of food.

Over 12 million pounds of food pass through the Food Bank building annually: that's 25 tons of food on a daily basis. The food comes from several sources including wholesale suppliers, the USDA and, of course, donations. Over the years, the amount of those donations has given Woods a great deal of confidence in the generosity of the Tucson community. Though there was a significant drop in donations following the events of September 11, Woods is counting on the beneficence of the community to help the Food Bank serve those in need during the holiday season.

"When the community knows, the community responds," he said.

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