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A Look Through Food Arizonans Donated During The Holidays

st marys volunteers pack boxes
Annika Cline/KJZZ
Volunteers at St. Mary's Food Bank pack boxes of food in 2016.

St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance in Arizona is one of the largest food banks in the United States. They take in 2.5 million pounds of food every year through food drives. About 40 percent of that supply comes in during November and December. 

The donated food starts out on its journey at the food bank in a place called the reclamation room.

“We have literally hundreds of thousands of pounds of food here that need to be sorted,” said Director of Public Relations Jerry Brown as he walked over to one of the cardboard bulk boxes sitting on wooden pallets.

This one was stationed outside of a Goodwill and still needed to be sorted.

“I’m looking at this right here. This bag of beans is maybe a third full and wide open. That’s not something that we can use,” Brown said, holding up the bag.

Near the beans is a bag of pasta that was opened and then re-wrapped in another plastic bag. Both will have to be tossed. To be clear, Brown said the 200,000 pounds of food they get from the Goodwill boxes alone is really appreciated — it’s just, they end up tossing about 60,000 pounds of it every year.

“They’re cleaning out their closets so they can give clothes and toys and things like that to Goodwill,” Brown said of the donors. “They’re cleaning out their refrigerators at the same time, maybe not always looking as close.”

Volunteers will be looking closely, taking many hours to go through all this food, and what’s kept will be sorted by food group. In the next room, the boxes are a lot neater — more like the grocery store than the contents of someone’s pantry. There’s a box for canned fruit, for example and a pallet for rice.

“When people ask us what is it that we don’t need — things like ramen noodles,” Brown said. “It was great when you were a college kid to cook a quick meal and to get you through a study session, but they really don’t have any nutritional value.”

But sure enough, there are a couple boxes of ramen noodles right at our feet. Across the room is the holy grail, from the way Brown talks it up — peanut butter. If ramen is the food bank’s rainy day fallback, peanut butter is its sunshine. And there’s never enough of it. Brown suspects it has to do with the quantity over quality conundrum.

“If your child’s having a food drive at school and you want to give them a full bag, you’ll tend to go to the fruits and vegetables section where it’s maybe 50 cents a can or something like that and you’ll buy 10 cans of vegetables,” he said.

But a few jars of peanut butter will stretch further, even if it doesn’t look as impressive in the food drive box.

On a long conveyor belt, cans and jars and bags of food that have passed the test are reaching the end of their journey. Volunteers put the food into boxes that will go to individual families.

“Some green beans, some potatoes, some corn,” said Jason Groen, a Phoenix police officer who was volunteering with some elementary students on the assembly line.

“So they get all the food groups pretty much covered. They get their basic nutrients, they get food that a lot of people take for granted,” he said.

Even though that reclamation room is like a never ending treasure hunt for usable food, the end result is stacks and stacks of neatly packed boxes that will find a good home.

Annika Cline was a producer for KJZZ's The Show from 2014 to 2019.