Photo by Jake Hines Cars wait in line for United Food Bank’s weekly food distribution at the Mesa Convention Center on Friday, Dec. 11, 2020. United Food Bank and other food banks around the state have seen demand skyrocket amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Photo by Jake Hines

The Thanksgiving meals distributed by one Valley food bank increased by nearly 400% from last year.

Gerri Powers sat in her car in the parking lot outside the Mesa Convention Center on Friday morning, waiting as United Food Bank volunteers handed out food at its weekly drive-thru distribution.

It’s the sixth or seventh time Powers has used United Food Bank services to help feed her family of five since the start of the pandemic.

Before this year, Powers had never used a food bank, but, like many other Arizonans, has come to lean on their help amid the lost wages and financial fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.

Her car was just one in a sea of vehicles, lined up in dozens of rows, waiting as volunteers packed boxes of food Friday — filled with frozen meats, eggs, fresh produce, juice and non-perishable food items — into the line of waiting cars.

Volunteers say cars started lining up two hours before the distribution kicked off at 7 a.m. Three weeks before, volunteers said the parking lots for the Mesa Convention Center and the neighboring Mesa Amphitheatre were both packed for the Thanksgiving food distribution, with a line of cars backed up for miles waiting to get in.

Cars wait in line for United Food Bank’s weekly food distribution at the Mesa Convention Center on Friday, Dec. 11, 2020. United Food Bank and other food banks around the state have seen demand skyrocket amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Photo by Jake Hines

It’s a sight that the United Food Bank volunteers and other food banks across the state have become accustomed to as the coronavirus pandemic stretches on and thousands of unemployed Arizonans are struggling to find work or put food on the table.

On March 13 — the day President Donald Trump declared the coronavirus a national emergency — United Food Bank serviced 489 families, a number that tracked with the bank’s demand on a typical Friday, according to spokesperson Tyson Nansel.

By the next Friday, that number had tripled to 1,200 families, then to 2,200 families the following week, he said.

Last year, at their food distribution during the week before Thanksgiving, United Food Bank distributed food to 580 families. That number increased by almost 400% this year, with the food bank servicing 2,800 families, or roughly 12,000 people, according to Nansel.

“This pandemic has really set records for United Food Bank in their 35-year history,” he said.  “It’s comparable to the [Great Recession], but I think it’s a little bit worse than what we saw during the recession.”

Volunteers register people waiting in line for United Food Bank’s weekly food distribution at the Mesa Convention Center on Friday, Dec. 11, 2020. United Food Bank and other food banks around the state have seen demand skyrocket amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Photo by Jake Hines

‘A Time of Compassion’

Once the pandemic hit, everything changed — including operations at St. Mary’s Food Bank, the largest food bank in the state. St. Mary’s, which relies heavily on the support of volunteers, saw its volunteer workforce disappear as a result of the restrictions put in place during the pandemic, according to chief development and community relations officer Lisa Notaro. 

Food banks were also forced to pivot to a no-touch, no-contact model of delivering food straight into people’s cars.

“Not many great things have come out of this pandemic, but one good thing that’s come out of it is we’ve been able to be really, really efficient in creating this model,” Notaro said. “I don’t know actually that we will ever change. It goes really quickly.”

Before the pandemic, St. Mary’s Food Bank would give out roughly 250,000 pounds of food a day, according to Notaro. That number has more than doubled this November, with St. Mary’s distributing roughly 550,000 pounds of food per day, she said.

“In one month, we gave out 260 semi-trucks of food,” she said. “It’s just crazy.”

United Food Bank volunteers help load food into waiting vehicles at their weekly food distribution at the Mesa Convention Center on Friday, Dec. 11, 2020.
Photo by Jake Hines

Today, Notaro says the line of cars snaking through the neighborhood surrounding St. Mary’s, at 31st Avenue and Thomas Road in Phoenix, can be up to a mile or longer.

United Food Bank ultimately moved their distributions to the Mesa Convention Center, in partnership with the City of Mesa, earlier this year after demand for their services skyrocketed at the start of the pandemic.

Those numbers began slowing after Gov. Doug Ducey’s stay-at-home order was lifted in May, but Nansel says the demand is once again increasing.

Notaro said expenses also increased dramatically to account for the new method of food delivery. St. Mary’s hired temporary labor to help distribute meals, off-duty police officers to help control traffic, and fans and tents to keep food and workers cool during the summer months.

But as expenses increased, so too did donations.

In April, Notaro said St. Mary’s began seeing several first-time donations of $1,200. Upon calling the donors, Notaro said many had donated their entire federal stimulus check, which was intended to provide financial relief for people struggling during the pandemic, to St. Mary’s.

“How heartwarming is this?” Notaro said. “When there’s a time of such great need, it’s also a time of such compassion from people that weren’t financially impacted.”

Volunteers pack boxes of food — filled with eggs, milk, frozen meats, fresh produce, juice and non-perishable food items — into the line of waiting cars at United Food Bank’s weekly food distribution at the Mesa Convention Center on Friday, Dec. 11, 2020.
Photo by Jake Hines

Food Banks See Rise in First-Time Users

Before the pandemic, people would come to St. Mary’s once every few months for “emergency situations,” when they were between jobs or trying to pay for an unexpected bill, according to Notaro.

“Something episodic happened to them where they needed help to get through the next two weeks or a short period of time,” she said.

But Notaro said more than half of the people who were coming to St. Mary’s at the start of the pandemic were first-time clients of the food bank. She said many worked in the service industry, which was devastated by the pandemic earlier this year.

Feeding America, a nationwide network of food banks that includes St. Mary’s and United Food Bank, has seen a 60% increase in food bank users during the pandemic, where approximately 40% are first-time users, according to an analysis by the Associated Press

United Food Bank doesn’t track first-time users of its services, but Nansel said that several of their own volunteers have come to rely on the food bank to get food this year. 

“That’s an okay thing,” he said. “That’s why we’re here.”

The laptop of a United Food Bank volunteer sits in front of palettes of food waiting to be given away at a weekly food distribution event at the Mesa Convention Center on Friday, Dec. 11, 2020. United Food Bank and other food banks around the state have seen demand for food skyrocket amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Photo by Jake Hines

How to Get Food in Your Area

Valley residents in need of food can visit St. Mary’s Food Bank daily from 7:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. for drive-thru food pickup at their Phoenix location, 3131 W. Thomas Road. Residents can also visit the Surprise distribution center at 13050 W. Elm St., but must park and walk up to pick up their food boxes.

St. Mary’s also offers home delivery to qualifying seniors in Maricopa County who are unable to travel to the food bank, and a mobile food pantry that delivers fresh produce to different communities around the state. 

United Food Bank, which serves the East Valley, hosts their drive-thru food distribution every Friday from 7-11 a.m. at the Mesa Convention Center, 263 N. Center St. No food distribution will be held on Friday, Dec, 25 or Friday, Jan. 1.

Nansel said that the United Food Bank staff is constantly assessing safety and how to keep its staff and the residents relying on their services safe amid the pandemic.

“Ultimately our desire to serve outweighs those fears of COVID-19,” he said.

Arizona residents in need of a hot meal or an emergency food box can use the Arizona Food Bank Network to find a food bank near them.