Michael McDonad is the CEO of the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona. He recently spoke to Tucson Local Media about the nature of food insecurity in Southern Arizona, efforts to provide more nutritious food and how many seniors are depending on the food bank.
What is the state of food insecurity in Southern Arizona?
We really haven’t moved the needle in a big way, because the economy has not improved for everyone. Poverty is still pretty high. Not as high as it was, so we’ve seen a slight reduction. I would have said 18 months ago we probably had 200,000 people seeing us each year. We’re probably down to 187,000. So it’s been a slight decrease in the number of people needing services, but those in need still are in significant need. We serve six counties in Southern Arizona. Five years ago when I started, we received and distributed about 19 million pounds worth of food. This last year was 71 million, so we’re getting more food, but on a per person basis, you might get three to four days worth of food from us in a month.
The U.S. Agriculture Department has launched a program to distribute food that farmers can’t sell to foreign markets, as a result of the Trump administration’s trade wars. How has the food bank handled that challenge?
It’s a great opportunity, so there is some silver lining in a trade dispute that doesn’t really serve any economies in the long term. The silver lining is that low-income families in Southern Arizona are definitely receiving better food. So today we have and unprecedented amount of blueberries from Maine. We have frozen chicken. We’re getting pork. We’re getting all kinds of nuts and produce that we normally don’t get from other parts of the country. So that’s a great benefit because in addition to just the amount of food people need to make ends meet, it’s the quality of that food that we’ve been trying to improve. A few years ago, we probably got eight million pounds of produce in a given year. Now we’re up to 52 million pounds of fresh produce coming out. So it’s not just that people need calories, they need more nutritious calories. So that’s the opportunity: The government is providing more food than ever before. It’s about 60 percent more than we see in a given year from the feds—and the feds makeup just a small piece of our annual food budget. The challenge is there’s no extra dollars. So we actually have to rent additional refrigeration and cooling storage for the fresh produce. We’re running with trucks, and we’re hiring more temporary staff. So it’s a great blessing. It’s also a challenge just to afford to do all that stuff at the same time.
You’ve mentioned the idea of more nutritious food. Talk a little bit about those gardening programs that the food bank is involved with.
We continue to build on 20 years of doing community gardening and support for community gardens and school gardens. We have some great school districts that have really made a commitment to their low-income schools and communities to utilize gardening in a way to teach science, technology, engineering and math to feed kids from the produce grown in that garden. That gets into the cafeteria, and also to provide some economic opportunities. Some of the schools have farmer’s markets. Tucson Unified School District has a full time garden coordinator for the district. There are dozens of schools doing gardening. They feed kids with their programs. Sunnyside School District is now working with us. I think they have about a half a dozen schools doing gardening. So that’s pretty exciting that it’s being done with kids, because I think it’s changing the next generation’s eating habits. If they actually learn how to grow food, and they realize that there are choices to be made—and some of them are more healthy choices than fast food or or a snack food—the kids are changing their eating habits.
Many of your clients report that someone in their family has high blood pressure or diabetes. What are some of your strategies for providing healthy food to folks?
Responding to that need, that’s how we got even more committed to gardening. That’s how we got committed to looking at ways to use our community kitchen, Caridad Community Kitchen, across from Dunbar Spring Auditorium. We’ve doubled the size of that in the last two years. That’s providing local, fresh produce meals for homebound seniors and people with disabilities. It’s in a partnership with Catholic Community Services and Lutheran Social Services. So we’re able to buy local produce. We’re able to source local foods. We’re able to produce it through that Culinary Arts Training Program that we have at the kitchen. So our clients are getting jobs in an industry, like at the Fox restaurants, or the resorts. They’re producing food for seniors, and they’re producing food for kids, it’s all local.
How much demand are you seeing from seniors?
Last week, I was doing parking lot traffic control right before Thanksgiving, we were just jammed packed. The overwhelming majority of folks who come to the food bank these days are seniors. They’re seniors on fixed income, or grandparents raising grandchildren. So they may be a mixed-age, multi-generational household, but it’s the seniors who have the time to come pick up their food. So I think it’s going to just continue to grow. We’re just going to see more very vulnerable, fragile, fixed-income seniors who can’t quite make ends meet, and they’re going to struggle with hunger. They’re going to struggle with diet-related disease because they have to eat cheaply. So if we can continue to provide fresh produce, I think that’ll just improve their food security. Hopefully, benefit their health care a little bit too.