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Chow: Pandemic Produce 

Quick action allows fresh fruits and vegetables to be delivered to local food banks

Southern Arizona food banks are receiving much-needed support from both Pima County and Santa Cruz County along with the Arizona National Guard to help serve the public during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pima County Supervisor Sharon Bronson and Santa Cruz County Supervisor Bruce Bracker have teamed up to address the needs of not only their respective counties but Yuma County and Cochise County as well.

The Pima County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted last week to amend the City of Tucson and Pima County Consortium 2014-2019 HUD Consolidated Plan and the Pima County Annual Action Plan to free up $630,000 split between various agencies addressing the public's needs during the pandemic. It took the county about a week to diagnose who needed funding and where the county could get the funding, said Bronson.

"When you have to do something, you have to do it. You don't wait," Bronson said. "We needed to rethink what we're doing with our COVID-19 response. If we don't respond quickly, we're negligent."

Bronson said food security is most important during this time as uncertainty looms as to how long the shutdown will last and how long it will take to recover. Bruce Bracker, her counterpart in Santa Cruz County, alerted Bronson about an overabundance of produce in Nogales produce warehouses due to the shutdown. These produce companies were willing to donate their unsold backstock to community food banks before it spoiled.

"It's important that we deal with food security issues for the people who are going to need it," Bonson said. "Thanks to Bruce, the National Guard, and our county staff we were able to get produce to several Southern Arizona counties."

Bracker said the support from the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, the Arizona National Guard, and numerous private businesses in Santa Cruz County is significant in orchestrating a response. Produce is donated by the Fresh Produce Association, repackaged by the Arizona National Guard, and stored in several private cold storage facilities in the Nogales area at no cost to the county.

"If we didn't have the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas cooperation or the National Guard, this wouldn't be happening," Bracker said. "There's a lot of people in the community that stepped up, like private industry just donating their time."

The quick response from Pima and Santa Cruz counties is great news for food banks serving Southern Arizona, most of which have seen a doubling of demand for assistance, said Michael McDonald, CEO of the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona. His food bank received an $80,000 grant from Pima County, which was used to purchase three semi-truck loads of brown rice to distribute throughout Southern Arizona.

"We can easily spend $80,000 in one week," McDonald said. "We're seeing a doubling of demand at all of our agency partners, a sharp increase of at least 45 percent at our facilities, and a three-fold increase in new clients."

McDonald said the doubling of demand has been challenging while working with fewer volunteers, most of whom are senior citizens.

"We depend on volunteers so heavily and a lot of our elderly volunteers needed to stay home for their own health reasons. The doubling of demand and the decrease in our workforce has been challenging," McDonald said. "Once Gov. Ducey mobilized the National Guard, we now have a solid source of support."

Sahuarita Food Bank executive director Carlos Valles said the extra help from both Pima and Santa Cruz counties "has helped tremendously." His food bank received a $50,000 grant from Pima County after seeing the number of people needing assistance double since the pandemic hit.

"(The grant) helps us tremendously. We'll be purchasing more food and use it for our operations, maintenance for our van and truck because it's on the road more now, " Valles said. "We'll also be purchasing things like PPE during the pandemic."

Valles said his food bank had to adapt quickly to the increased community need as his volunteers, also mostly elderly, decreased in recent weeks. Now the food bank is efficiently serving more people while using fewer resources. Having the National Guard help at the food bank has been a blessing, said Valles.

"It's crazy that we've been able to serve more now with less. We're prepping a day early and we also have the Arizona National Guard coming out and helping when 99 percent of our volunteers are 65 to 70 years old," Valles said. "Having a younger, stronger workforce has been a blessing for our organization."

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