On Christmas Day 30 years ago, the Flagstaff Family Food Center served its first hot meal to the public. Since then, its staff has helped thousands of hungry people across Northern Arizona.
Demand has almost doubled with the pandemic, including an influx of first-time visitors to the food bank. So the food center has adjusted to the heightened demand — and is working to battle the stigma of food insecurity.
Days before Christmas, the center’s warehouse brimmed with groceries. Cans of yellow cling peaches, bags of rice, and little packets of mayonnaise lined the shelves, and members of the National Guard sorted fresh papayas on wooden pallets.
Executive Director Monica Foos sifted through the food — some items came from the federal government. Others were imported from Arizona farms as far as Nogales.
“It’s a great variety nutritionally and it’s good, fresh food,” Foos said.
The center has received a large supply of food recently, and plenty of newcomers are taking it home. But, she added, it can be difficult to show up to a food bank for the first time.
“You can see it in their face,” Foos explained. “They’re apologetic or feel kind of ashamed and they bring in their bills. We don’t need that.”
Foos said the staff typically collects addresses and the number of people in a given household — to document who the center is serving. However, the center doesn’t require government-issued identification, records of income, or proof of citizenship.
“We’re about food, and getting it into any family and any home,” Foos said.
Since the start of the pandemic and its subsequent economic fallout, the food center has adapted to heightened demand, along with the changing safety parameters of COVID-19. Regular volunteers were sent home in the spring and replaced by the National Guard to help food distribution efforts continue safely.
Foos said the changes run deeper.
“We’ve gotten a lot of great ideas during this time,” she added.
In recent months, the staff utilized food box distribution in churches and community centers. The center also coordinated curbside, contactless pickup.
“This is doing the community a favor when folks come by and pick this food up,” Foos said. “First off, it’s keeping it from having to be wasted and go to landfills.”
And, she added, eliminating one financial strain could allow a family to focus on others.
“It also helps that family start to get a plan to build their own finances in that, ‘what do we need to pay off? What is coming up? Or is there a car repair?’ So they can use that in a way to build,” Foos said.
The pandemic, in part, is the reason the food center’s shelves are so full, Foos said. When thousands of restaurants closed nationwide, they stopped buying supplies from farmers.
Government programs allow farmers to sell their surplus, which in turn is distributed to food banks across the country.
And in some cases, more families than ever are stopping by. More than four out of five food banks nationwide say they’ve seen more people this year than last, according to the non-profit Feeding America.
“The several days leading up to Thanksgiving were the busiest that we’ve ever seen in the food bank in the 30 years that we’ve been here in Flagstaff,” Carrie Henderson said.
Henderson, the food center’s development director, noted an 80 percent increase in demand for food assistance this year. And the holidays tend to draw more clients, she added.
“And I think that this year it’s more important than ever for families to be able to have some semblance of normalcy`and joy during the holidays,” Henderson said.
On a Thursday afternoon, Jeffrey Paul works in the warehouse. He’s been at the food center for years — and he’s used to doing a little bit of everything.
“Basically anything that needs to be done,” Paul said. “Food drives, store pickups, cardboard pickups, even deliveries also.”
Paul said the days leading up to Christmas have been busy — but it’s been gratifying to see families leave with healthy grains and vegetables.
“Our numbers have jumped up so much,” Paul said. “I know the feeling of how it is not to be able to have a holiday meal. So being able to provide that here is kind of a good feeling, you know?”
With two newly released vaccines and a fluctuating economy, the Flagstaff Family Food Center expects high demand well into the new year.