Valley food banks creating unique systems to meet record demand from families

Posted at 2:05 PM, Apr 28, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-28 21:44:03-04

MESA, AZ — Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Valley food banks have seen an unprecedented demand to feed Arizona's hungry -- as many as 1 million people a month, which is double the average.

Operations, including those at United Food Bank in Mesa, have shifted to meet the need. For United, this has meant developing a new drive-thru system at the Mesa Convention Center to give out emergency food boxes and have minimal contact.

Arizona food banks serving record numbers amid pandemic

United Food Bank President and CEO Dave Richins told ABC15 they've been feeding an average of 2,200 families each Friday morning since COVID-19. That's about 10,000 people. Richins said that's four times what they were serving before the pandemic.

"This has far outstripped even our largest distribution during the holidays. We might at one of those get 800 or 900, but to see 2,200 every single week, it just breaks your heart," said Richins.

United Food Bank hasn't turned anyone away.

The emergency food box typically serves a family of four for about three days. For many people, that box is helping them stay afloat.

"This is going to save me. I can pay a bill instead of buying food," said Gina Tabb as she waited in her car to get a food box.

Joanna Rodriguez has five young kids and said since her husband's hours were cut because of the coronavirus, they need help getting healthy food.

"We get beans, we got vegetables, fruits, last time we got big pork, ham, we got bread, bagels," said Rodriguez.

For many -- like Jennifer Poitra -- this is the first time going to a food bank for help.

"It's a financial struggle when you have one person working, it's a family of five, we have three kids three boys, it's extremely helpful to get the food," said Poitra.

"They can't go to school so the children are home all day, and the school isn't feeding them so we feed them from home. It has really made a difference," said Ruby Coleman.

"This helps with the budget, the food and this is a great operation. It's amazing how fast it goes, and it's well organized," said Dave Hooper.

The grand-scale set-up at the convention center was created in March. United Food Bank has been working with Mesa police and the Arizona National Guard to run the operation.
"We are loading things without ever having come in contact with anybody so it's as safe as it can be," said Brenda Hacker, a volunteer at United Food Bank.

They get 25 National Guard service members each Friday. They help pack and deliver the boxes to the cars as they pull up.

"These guys are friendly and kind and they work hard and they never complain about a single thing about their duty. They're glad to be here helping, and I'm glad to have them," said Richins.

The event is every Friday from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. Some people show up hours before to make sure they can get an emergency food box.

Even though this is the most people they've had to feed in a day, Richins said he's not worried about running out of food.

"As far as food supply goes, food keeps coming, we keep putting it out," he said.

They've already gone through the food that comes from donation drives and grocery stores, but now they're getting most items from the USDA.

"We are scheduling out about 4-6 weeks on all of our supplies. That's why we have all those trucks scheduled until the end of July. And we'll continue to order beyond that--we spent a couple of million dollars ordering food to make sure that comes in."

In fact, they're giving out more food than usual to cover families for longer. The boxes now feed a family of four for about a week. They want it to be nutritious, so each box has four types of frozen meats, fresh produce, dairy and bread.

Richins said they saw a drastic drop in volunteers --about 90% of them from corporate groups canceled. But they put out a plea.

"The East Valley responded. We have tons of families, and high school kids and individual groups that wanted to come in and help. People want to give back," said Richins.

Brooks Martinez is a second grade teacher who decided to volunteer at United for the first time.

"You don't see the need every day. It feels good to be able to give someone some good food that they can go home and feed their family," said Martinez.
Richins sais it's his team that's been able to make the distribution possible. But with temps hitting the triple digits, now he'll be facing a new obstacle.

"Being out here doing a mobile distribution, the heat is really really logistically difficult," said Richins.

United is part of the Arizona Food Bank Network, which includes the state’s largest food banks working together to deal with this crisis.

The president of the network, Angie Rodgers, told ABC15 that food banks are usually the first to see impacts when people start to suffer financially. And they're also the last to leave.

So even if our economy does start to re-open, it could be months before the demand for food returns to normal levels.