When times get tough, many people around Tucson look to the Community Food Bank for help.

With the local economy lagging, food bank officials say they have seen a rapid escalation in the need for food assistance.

“We’ve had a 52 percent increase in the number of food boxes we delivered over the past two years,” said Tony Bruno, a food bank representative.

Founded in 1976, the group has delivered countless emergency food boxes to families in need.

Working primarily out of a giant warehouse complex on a nearly 10-acre site at Country Club Road and 36th Street in Tucson, the organization gave out more than 14.5 million pounds of food during the 2007 fiscal year.

The building’s towering shelves and 2,000-square-foot freezer resemble those typical of a warehouse food store — only here all the food is given away.

Despite the seeming abundance piled high on the shelves, Bruno said normally there would be much more food to sort through and distribute to the needy.

During the 2007 fiscal year, the food bank delivered more than 132,000 of the boxes providing sustenance for 381,000 people in southern Arizona. That marks a nearly 15-percent increase in food boxes over the previous year, according to figures provided by the organization.

Closer to home, the Marana Food Bank has also experienced a spike in demand for services.

In May 2007, the Marana outlet provided emergency food help for 1,300 people in 264 households. In May, the group served 2,400 people in 699 households.

At least 350 Oro Valley senior citizens receive food bank assistance as well.

Cecilia Munoz, who runs the Marana facility, said many of the clients tell tales of having fallen victim to the recent mortgage crisis or waiting months on end for food stamp applications to be processed.

“That is so common that I’m hearing from clients,” Munoz said.

Adding to the misfortune, she said, fuel prices have forced many food bank clients to choose between food and gas.

“We have people who can only get here by carpooling with neighbors,” Munoz said.

But for the food bank, the more troubling aspect of the recent influx of clients in need assistance is the economic station many once had occupied.

“We’re seeing an increase in middle-income clients,” Bruno said. “Those are folks who used to donate to us, now they are coming in for services.”

And while the need appears to be growing with no end in sight, donations to the food bank have not kept pace with the demand.

The group recently wrapped up a well-publicized drive for donations with the help of the U.S. Postal Service.

Tucsonans donated more than 1 million pounds of food during the letter-carrier food drive, during which postal workers gathered food along their delivery routes.

Even with the success of the campaign, Bruno said it might not be enough to meet the growing demand in the community.

To help as many people as possible, the organization may have to start adjusting the food box program.

“It could be that we may need to look at smaller food boxes. That’s not really what we want to do,” Bruno said.

To prevent that, Bruno and others have tried to extend their reach in the community and seek new partners.

The Marana Food Bank recently partnered with several area businesses. Some, like Ace Hardware in Oro Valley, have agreed to serve as food donation collection points.

“That’s what’s going to help us get through these summer months,” Munoz said.

Summertime is usually the leanest time in terms of donations to the organization, while the winter months, especially around Christmas, see an increase in giving, Munoz said.

The food bank has also turned to the government.

The group requested $15,000 recently from the Oro Valley Town Council. The council’s subcommittee on community funding recommended giving the group $5,000, but the entire council must approve the donation.

Bruno said government donations accounts for less than 20 percent of the food bank’s budget. The rest comes from the community at large.

“That money,” Bruno said, “is well spent in the long run.”

Food Bank Assistance Programs

Food Assistance Boxes

Boxes are given based on need. Sizes vary depending on the number of people per household.

Food Plus

Pregnant mothers, mothers who have given birth within the last year, children between the ages of 1 and 6, and senior citizens get six-month refillable food prescriptions.

“Snak Paks for Kids”

Teachers identify chronically hungry students. The food bank and other groups give children a weekend supply of healthy snacks to take home every Friday during the school term. In 2006, the program regularly assisted more than 450 children.

Community garden

A 20-acre farm in Marana that produces seasonal produce. Also offers demonstrations on backyard gardening techniques.

Tucson’s Table

Churches, charities and other non-profit groups can come to Community Food Bank headquarters and “shop” for food that they then distribute.  The program helps feed as many a 32,000 people a day.

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