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Facing Soaring Need, Food Banks Get Help From Arizona National Guard

Uniformed Arizona National Guard members kept several feet of space between themselves, put one item into a charity food box and passed it on rollers to the next person on the assembly line.

“These guys can build a lot of boxes and they can build them pretty fast,” said Jerry Brown, director of public relations for St. Mary’s Food Bank. 

The nonprofit was going to run out of boxes, if not for the Guard’s help. There weren’t enough volunteers to keep up with need, which Brown said has gone up dramatically since the coronavirus pandemic hit home in the 48th state. 

“We’re seeing 1,200 to 1,500 folks a day at our Knight Center. And again, that is just one of 700 agencies that we have around the state of Arizona,” said Brown.

Millions of Americans have already filed for unemployment because of the coronavirus that’s strangling the U.S. economy. Tens of thousands of them live right here in Arizona, where many had been living paycheck to paycheck. Local food banks are seeing droves of people who need help just to eat.

At the same time, Brown said key donors, like grocery stores, have almost nothing to give. It’s a trickle-down effect from panicked shoppers cleaning out shelves. Enter the Arizona National Guard, which has been ordered to help food banks and plug supply-chain holes so stores can restock.

“For a lot of people, we don’t necessarily think about how that loaf of bread gets from where it’s grown all the way onto a store shelf,” said Lt. Col. Nathaniel Panka, who’s leading more than 700 citizen-soldiers and airmen called up for the mission.

Jobs like planning and moving pallets of goods from warehouse to grocery store falls right in the Guard’s wheelhouse, said the Casa Grande native.

“We just change the names a little bit and we can do logistics to support our community partners out there in need,” said Panka.

The local crisis caused by COVID-19 sort of reminds Panka of the Rodeo-Chediski Fire, which consumed nearly half a million acres almost 20 years ago. For help dealing with the pandemic, food banks and grocers have to request it through the county where they’re located.

“So far the most challenging part has been defining our customer set and getting the word out of how to get into the process,” said Panka.

St. Mary’s sought and got the Guard’s help this week. So did United Food Bank, which is part of the same national network called Feeding America.

“[St. Mary’s] serve(s) the west side and northwest of Arizona, while United Food Bank serves the East Valley and eastern Arizona,” said Tyson Nansel, external affairs director for United Food Bank.

The nonprofit took up social distancing and had volunteers move food straight to cars. But then came a huge drop in outside help, plus a dramatic rise in need. On Friday, with the Guard’s help United Food Bank moved it’s weekly operation about four miles to the Mesa Convention Center.

“And we are going to do a drive-through distribution,” said Nansel.

Like St. Mary’s, United Food Bank has also been hit with food-drive cancellations and plummeting donations from grocery stores. Nansel said the federal government has helped make up for the loss with goods bought from farmers affected by the trade war with China.

“We have been inundated with a lot of that USDA food, which is frozen meat, frozen pork. We’re also getting produce and walnuts from it,” said Nansel.  

Steps have been taken to help Arizonans suddenly thrown off a financial cliff by the coronavirus outbreak.

Checks are supposed to come from the federal government. There’s a statewide moratorium on evicting renters. Utilities and communications companies say they won’t cut off service.

Nansel said these efforts can help ease the need confronting food banks. But it’s going to take at least a month before they’re felt.

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Matthew Casey has won Edward R. Murrow awards for hard news and sports reporting since he joined KJZZ as a senior field correspondent in 2015.