Hunger Helpers

As Tucson grows and the economy suffers, the Food Bank finds more and more people needing its services

Anna Marie McGrath has turned to the Community Food Bank for assistance within the last year, joining a rapidly growing number of Tucsonans looking for assistance. She is just one of the thousands of Pima County residents who need to rely on an occasional emergency food box in order to eat regularly.

Homeless and residing in a tent in the Tucson desert, McGrath walked two miles to the Food Bank's giant warehouse on South Country Club Road one cool afternoon last week. She wanted to obtain a food box, something she's been doing for about 12 months.

After waiting with several other individuals and families seeking the same assistance, McGrath explains: "I do day labor, and my husband and I buy food in stores. But the work is hit-and-miss."

She says she once went four days without food because of various circumstances. After completing the brief registration process, McGrath was given a bag of food, and she quickly went on her way.

Now providing 15,000 emergency boxes each month, the Food Bank has recently seen the number of people seeking this aid increase dramatically: In the past year, the demand for these supplies has gone up an amazing 22 percent.

"We're finding many families using this as another source of food," explains Joy Tucker, the Food Bank's senior vice president of facilities management. "They're either underemployed or seasonal workers, and their food and fuel costs are going up. So we're serving the working poor who need a little help."

In addition to those people, Tucker adds: "The reality is we're also seeing many seniors who've been getting the emergency boxes for years."

The boxes are distributed on Tuesdays and Thursdays from the Food Bank's southside location; they can also be picked up at more than two dozen other sites around town. Available twice a month, the emergency food comes in either a plastic bag for individuals/couples, or a large cardboard box for families.

Consisting mostly of basic commodities, each box has items such as cereal, canned fruits and vegetables, peanut butter, tuna, dry soup, rice and beans. As a treat, candy canes were recently included.

"We also accommodate the homeless who don't have access to cooking facilities," points out Lisa Diggins, assistant warehouse manager for the Food Bank. "We give them things they don't have to cook."

Some people are also eligible to receive monthly assistance under the federal government's Food Plus program, on top of these emergency supplies. But, as Diggins emphasizes, people must either be older than 60 years of age or have a child in the household less than 6 years old to qualify.

The Food Bank also gives away free bonus food items such as bread, fruit, squash and sodas that have been donated by grocery stores. The Food Bank additionally operates the small Value Foods store in the warehouse on Country Club, where products can be bought by anyone for 30 to 50 percent below retail price.

"It's only nutritional, good-quality food purchased from brokers," Tucker says of these affordable items.

To help feed the poor, the federal government provides food stamps to some. But information from both the Community Food Bank and the Association of Arizona Food Banks makes clear that the amount of this assistance can be limited.

"Families receiving food stamps get just enough for a minimum amount of food," says the Food Bank's family advocate, Sandie Hinojos. For many people, "The stamps just aren't enough to make it through the month."

Hinojos says that food-stamp amounts are only occasionally adjusted, and that food prices in the last several months have been going up quickly. Thus, "They never seem to catch up."

A recent Association of Arizona Food Banks newsletter declares: "As of July 2007, the average Arizona food stamp benefit is $1.05 per meal. The average food stamp allotment per person in Arizona was $97.60 (monthly)."

The association also notes that in 2007, 41 percent of those receiving emergency food supplies in the state had to choose at least once during the year between buying food and paying their utility bill. Another 28 percent had to decide whether to pay for medical care or buy food.

In Pima County, almost 150,000 people live in households where the annual gross income is below the federal poverty level of $20,650 for a family of four. Approximately one-third are children, while many others are senior citizens.

To help these and other people, last year, the Community Food Bank distributed 14.5 million pounds of food. But the need keeps growing.

However, Food Bank marketing and communications manager Jack Parris says restrictions on the emergency food-box program aren't being contemplated.

"We won't be limiting the supply in the foreseeable future," Parris says of the emergency supplies. "We're OK for the time being."

Tucker cites an increase in demand for emergency food supplies--at both the local and national levels--as future concerns. She believes the need is rising faster than funding provided by private donors and governments is rising.

"We'll be hurting if things keep going this way," Tucker says. "It will be difficult for us. There are so many more people coming in to get emergency boxes as times get (economically) tougher."

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