The food pantry at the Community Food Bank is surprisingly quiet. It’s quiet like a warehouse is quiet—not soundless, just diffuse. The line is full—40 or 50 people wait, muted, for their turn at the front. A blond teenage boy, headphones thrumming. A middle-aged Hispanic woman, a curly-haired toddler rocking on her hip. A white-haired man, leaning over a walker. It might take 20 minutes to get to the front of the line; it might take two hours. Either way, at the end of this wait, there is a box of food.
It’s not a lot of food—a jar of peanut butter, three cans of vegetables, a bag of rice, maybe a box of cereal. Depending on the day, the box might contain a watermelon, a bag of salad greens, or a handful of tomatoes. But for the 1.2 million Arizonans that struggle to get enough food to feed themselves and their families, it is a lifeline.
“It’s huge and incomprehensible to put a face and voice to hunger,” says Michael McDonald, the CEO of the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona. “Hunger is broad, diverse, and, unfortunately, it’s deep.”
Just two weeks into his tenure at the helm of the region’s largest food relief organization, McDonald is still wrapping his head around the statistics. (He came to the food bank from Habitat for Humanity Tucson. “I like basic, tangible services—food, housing,” he says.)
Today, nearly 50 million Americans—14 percent of the country’s population—are food insecure, which means they often lack access to safe, healthy, nutritious, and sufficient quantities of food. Seventeen million of those are children.
“Everyone complains about the conditions of our roads. Everyone can see it’s a crumbling infrastructure,” McDonald says. “But behind closed doors, there’s the crumbling infrastructure of a family’s household budget that is just insufficient for basic necessities like food.”
In Arizona, one out of every four adults is food insecure. In Arizona, one out of every three children is food insecure—that is, 30 percent of children in Arizona are at risk for hunger, a rate that puts us third in the nation for childhood food insecurity. In some communities, like South Tucson, the statistics are even grimmer.
Over the course of the year, the 14,000-square-foot warehouse at the Community Food Bank will receive, sort, and distribute 27 million pounds of food. “Who is the face of hunger in southern Arizona?” McDonald asks. “It’s people we know.
“I think people think that those who come to the Food Bank are unemployed, chronically unemployed, or unwilling to work,” he says. “That’s just not the case. They often have jobs, they have income. It’s just insufficient income.”
Indeed, it’s a truism in the world of food banking that hunger is a symptom of poverty. According to Janet Poppendieck, the author of Sweet Charity? Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement, if the federal minimum wage—currently $7.25—had kept pace with inflation from where it was in the 1970s, it would now be $16 an hour. That increase represents the difference between an annual income of $15,080 and $33,280—between requiring assistance and maintaining self-sufficiency.
If your wages are insufficient, if you are often uncertain about how you will feed yourself or your family, the U.S. government tries to offer some certainty. You can walk in the door of a food bank and walk out with a box full of food through what’s known as The Emergency Food Assistance Program, or TEFAP. In Arizona, for a single-person household, if you earn less than $1,211 a month, you can apply for continued relief through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) or WIC, the Women, Infants, and Children nutritional assistance program.
And many do. Every month, the food bank serves more than 225,000 people in southern Arizona; every month, it helps 2,000 individuals and families submit or start an application for SNAP benefits. Every day, 365 days a year, the food bank distributes enough food for 63,400 meals.
“I don’t come every month to get a food box,” says Josefa Peralta, 40. “Only when we need it. I think we should be conscious. When you don’t need it, there are other people who need it more.”
Peralta has been coming to the food bank on off for five years to pick up a box full of food, which she takes home to her husband and four children. Her husband works as a groundskeeper at The Westin La Paloma Resort and makes $1,500 a month—a sum that’s quickly spent on rent, utilities, and childcare. “Even though we’re working a lot, it isn’t enough,” she says. “And food can be so expensive.”
Peralta also worked at La Paloma, although she had to quit in September to take care of her mother, who was ill with Alzheimer’s. Now enrolled in English classes—she speaks only Spanish—and studying for the GED, Peralta plans to go back to work in March. In the meantime, with only one income, the family became eligible to receive SNAP benefits.
“The support they give us is so wonderful,” she says. The extra money helps her buy such staples as milk, eggs, cheese, tortillas, and some vegetables like chiles, tomatoes, onions, potatoes, carrots, and celery. She shops around for the lowest prices—the milk is cheapest at Fry’s, the chicken at Food City—but even so, “the food stamp money doesn’t last all month.” When her four kids, who range in age from 10 to 16, are on vacation from school, “they eat a lot more, because they’re home all day. They’re all growing kids, so they need to eat a lot.”
The food bank enrolls individuals and families in the SNAP program through the Gabrielle Giffords Family Assistance Center. Nadia Khatib, an Outreach Specialist at the GGFAC, says its clientele has increased considerably since October, when the Affordable Care Act moved all applications for federal assistance programs online, making it harder for the elderly and others without internet to access.
“On top of that, when the federal stimulus package expired [which cut $5 billion from SNAP] I got 10 phone calls a day from people asking what would happen to their benefits,” she says. “If you’re getting 100 dollars a month in food stamps, a 20 dollar decrease is a huge amount.” Most families experienced cuts of up to $65 a month—enough to drive up visitations at food banks around the country by as much as 10 percent.
In October, Peralta received a SNAP-issued debit card loaded with $428 dollars. By January, that number had fallen to $407. “It’s noticeable,” she says. “It’s so great to have this help, but it’s going down, and food prices are still very high in the store.”
As funds are being cut for hunger relief programs like SNAP, the number of people showing up at food banks requesting food has grown. At the Amado and Green Valley branches of the Community Food Bank, which serve primarily rural families, McDonald says they’ve seen a 30 percent increase in visits from the year prior.
2014 marks the 50th year since President Lyndon Johnson declared a war on poverty—a war “we obviously haven’t won,” McDonald says. Tackling hunger—and therefore poverty—is “a complex issue. There are hungry people today and you have to feed those people. In the food banking world, it’s called ‘feeding the line.’ You just feed the people in line who show up and get in line,” he says. “But we want to shorten that line.”
Just south of Silverlake Road, down the straight and gray Cottonwood Lane, past small, box houses, quiet cars, and knobby speed bumps, beyond a gate adorned with a block-letter sign, you’ll catch a glimpse of green.
Three years ago, Las Milpitas—which means “little fields” in Spanish—was an abandoned plot of land—long, dusty, shadeless. Today, 94 garden plots brim with vegetation. Broad mesquite trees spread shade. Thick foliage emerges out from dark soil, wide leaves that hide heads of cauliflower or bunches of broccoli. There is kale: curly, lacinato, purple. Spicy arugula and perky splays of lettuce. The beginnings of basil; the promise of sweet summer corn. Some plots are adorned with yellow sticks, a signal to other gardeners that the produce in this plot is for the picking—for the sharing.
The sum of these small impressions is striking, inescapable. This is a lot of food.
“Las Milpitas is an example of a process that really captures the essence of what we want to do,” says Robert Ojeda, the director of the Community Food Resource Center (CFRC), a branch of the Community Food Bank that focuses on long-term food security and sustainability. The CFRC began 13 years ago when a few food bank employees, focused on access to health food and nutrition, built a small demonstration garden next to the food bank.
“This effort brought some vibrant discussions at our food bank, to talk about what the end goal of our work was and is now,” Ojeda says. “Looking at the national trends, resources are more and more limited [for emergency food relief]. At the same time, you have a growing number of folks that need support. So, we asked, what else can we do?”
The answer: “Provide sustainable community food security.” That is, they realized they could help to shorten the line at the food bank by fostering opportunities for economic development, by enabling people to grow their own food, and by supporting communities so they have the capacity within themselves to be self-sufficient. Over the past decade, the work of the CFRC has expanded to include free, bilingual training on home food production, youth farm training apprenticeships, and support of 50 school gardens and four farmers’ markets that accept SNAP and WIC vouchers.
Five years ago, the CFRC created a home gardeners’ cooperative to support those wanting to install gardens in their own backyards. Those at the receiving end of the garden installation had only to commit to attending three garden workshops over the course of the year and to helping other community members install their own gardens. Today, more than 250 gardens in low-income homes throughout Tucson owe their beginning to the CFRC.
“The demand for this program is huge,” Ojeda says. So they wondered: Why not take that expertise—that interest—and root it a community?
When City High School approached the Community Food Bank and asked to partner in developing the space that would become Las Milpitas, “We first went out to the neighborhood, before we did anything,” Ojeda says. “We said, ‘There’s this space next door. What would you like to see happen in that space?’”
The community consensus was clear: They wanted the capacity to grow their own food.
Anna Pain, 54, dug in right away. “My neighbor saw me trying to fill some pots in my backyard and she said, ‘You know, they’re giving away plots of land next door for free,” she says. “I didn’t have a green thumb in my body. I really didn’t think I could do this, but here I am!”
It’s a sunny winter’s day at Las Milpitas and Pain has work to do. Aphids have been munching on her broccoli. She pulls out a spray bottle filled with soapy water and starts her assault. When she pulls back a beefy leaf on the edge of the plot, she comes face to face with a bright white sphere of cauliflower and exclaims an ecstatic “Oh!”
Pain spent nearly a decade working as a cashier at Safeway until 2011, when she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a condition characterized by chronic fatigue and pain. She believes it was a series of unlucky car accidents that damaged her nerves and catalyzed the fibromyalgia; in any case, she could no longer bear the physical strain of cashier work—standing on her feet for eight-hour shifts, lifting 50-pound bags of cat food or 20-packs of water bottles. “My thumbs were giving out on me. I’d get home and I wouldn’t be able to move them,” she says.
After looking for work for over a year, Pain decided to pursue a lifelong passion and get certified in massage therapy. She now works two days a week as a massage therapist at Barefoot Studios, which allows her ample time to recuperate—and to garden. “Working in the garden helps me. It keeps my joints limber. It’s grounding. Especially in the summer, when the ground is hot—it’s healing for my hands.”
Pain has been receiving SNAP benefits for the past year and a half. Before she started gardening, she says that she and her daughter, 36, didn’t eat nearly as many fresh vegetables as they do now. “We’re eating much healthier,” she says—and they’re spending less money. “I used to spend maybe $50 a week at the store. Now, I go maybe every two to three weeks and just buy canned foods and herbs. I’ll get a few pieces of meat and stick them in the freezer—and they sometimes stay there a long time!
“I don’t know how long food stamps will be around,” she says. “I hope I can grow enough stuff so that I don’t have to worry about going to the grocery and so I don’t have to rely on food stamps.”
It’s a hope shared by many in the CFRC. “We’re seeking opportunities for people not only to eat healthy and have access to nutritious food, but also for them to make some income off of that endeavor,” Ojeda says.
Any gardener at Las Milpitas—in fact, any home gardener in Tucson—has the opportunity to sell surplus produce at one of the four farmers’ markets sponsored by the food bank. If successful, they can become community cultivators and gain access to a quarter-acre plot of land.
In addition to all the food they’re producing, Ojeda measures the impact of the hundred gardeners at Las Milpitas by the extent to which they’ve become change agents in the community. “We have this group there, a community organization, that is so excited to see themselves as having the ability to change things and is also really connected with each other and the space,” he says.
When Francisca Cruz joined the farm three years ago, she was just excited to be able to garden, to learn how to plant, harvest, and cook healthy foods for her husband and their three kids. Together, they started tending chickens at the farm and taking the eggs home; soon, they were coming to the farm three times a day. When they noticed the flavors of the foods they were pulling from the ground, they stopped buying as much food at the grocery store. As the ground yielded crops, as the community blossomed and grew, so did Cruz’s sense of pride in what her family—and the community—had accomplished.
“I’m very proud to belong here, to the farm, and to live here, in this neighborhood,” says Cruz, who speaks Spanish but has started taking English classes. Cruz is one of a dozen gardeners that make up the Las Milpitas de Cottonwood Community Organization. “We have a plot here, but we’re also working together to try to improve our neighborhood—the streets, the streetlights. We do community events in the garden. Our goal is to get more people from the community involved with us.”
Cruz also serves as the vice president of the Santa Cruz Southwest Neighborhood Association. After nearly a decade in the neighborhood—her family moved to Tucson from Sonora, Mexico—“We hardly knew any of our neighbors,” she says. Now, little by little, they are getting to know them. “People bring recipes to the garden. With, say, the kale, which we weren’t accustomed to growing or eating, they help us and say, ‘Oh, you can prepare it this way.’ It’s so exciting to see your plot when your vegetables are almost ready to harvest. To know that you planted them and then you yourself are harvesting them.”
Because of projects like Las Milpitas, the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona is now nationally recognized as one of the half dozen most innovative food banks in the country. “We started with a little garden here [in Tucson] and moved to really having a national role,” Ojeda says. Of the 120 full-time staff at the food bank, about 20 are working for the CFRC—a level of support he says is unparalleled in other food relief organizations.
In October, the Community Food Bank hosted a national conference of food banks, bringing more than 130 organizations from across the country to Tucson. One goal of the conference was “to develop a national platform and allow us to have a place at the table” in policy conversations, Ojeda says.
A persistent question throughout the conference was one the food bank had been wrestling with for years: How do hunger relief organizations juggle a system of emergency food relief—one dependent on the excess of a flawed national food system—with investments in long-term food security? (Investments that, more often than not, require work outside of the existing food system and, thus, outside the interests of the large food corporations that continue to corporations that continue to fund many food banks.)
While traditional food banks measure their impact according to the quantity of calories distributed, many leaders are coming around to the fact they must also consider the nutritional quality of those calories. McDonald’s vision is for programs like those supported by the CRFC to become central to the work of food banking, rather than peripheral.
“Traditional food banks tend to look at pounds that are brought in and the pounds that are distributed to what number of people,” Ojeda says. “We’re a food bank that distributes millions of pounds of food. But what is the true value of a home garden? If you had to buy the 30 to 40 monthly pounds that a home garden produces, how much would it cost? What is the nutritional value of that?” Although he says they now have people working to answer these questions, many remain difficult to answer. “What is the impact that training and engaging with a young leader can have on our community?”
What might be easier to measure is the impact access to healthy foods might have on the 500,000 Arizonans who suffer from diabetes—an epidemic that costs the state $3.8 billion a year in medical costs. “I think we might need to re-position ourselves as a preventative healthcare organization,” McDonald says.
He’s of a mind that building a secure local food system and fighting hunger is one and the same. “I know a criticism [of local food] is that some of this is still more expensive and time consuming. If you have four jobs and access to a plot, do you even have time to garden?” Instead of asking people to come to the food bank to fill emergency food boxes, McDonald proposes the food bank might harness the energy of community volunteerism to help others grow their own food. “It could be as simple as: ‘Can I help you garden?’”
McDonald says that food banking is often reduced to a logistics problem—how do we distribute the most pounds of food to the greatest number of people in need? “But there needs to be this other, social impact, entrepreneurial ecosystem of food production, education, preparation—a farm-to-table approach, which is a holistic ecosystem approach,” he says. “And that’s looking at community assets instead of what gets shipped to us from USDA or from large grocers.” ✜