originally published pre-COVID
I learned about the term free and/or reduced lunch working as a primary school teacher. I remember watching siblings rush the cafeteria worker for their breakfast. They laughed, ate, and when they finished, they went back for more.
This would repeat during lunch, but watching closely, you could spot kids saving sandwiches, fruit, and asking for another juice-box. Some would wrap it in napkins and store it in their backpacks or pockets.
I didn’t know it at the time that many of these kids weren’t eating at home. The only proper meals they would receive were at school. (More on this at the end of this interview.)
Recently, I was listening to a great local podcast, Figure It Out, when I heard the President & CEO of the Association of Arizona Food Banks, Angie Rodgers, talk about a “Hunger-Free Arizona.”
As the President & CEO, Angie Rodgers is responsible for childhood hunger programs, providing transportation resources to its members, and the overall strategic direction and management of the anti-hunger organization.
AAFB is a nonprofit membership organization, representing five large food banks that distribute food statewide to more than 1,000 sites.
We reached out to her and she was kind enough to share some insights about about hunger in our state.
The History of Food Banks
Modern day food banking started right here in Phoenix, Arizona, by a man named John Van Hengel. He was volunteering at a soup kitchen and met a mother who told him she relied on soup kitchens and dumpsters to feed her children.
Her story broke his heart and inspired him to start a place where people with excess food could “deposit it” and those in need could “withdraw it.” St. Mary’s Basilica gave him $3,000 and in gratitude he named his food bank, “St. Mary’s.” He went on to found other food banks across the country and even the national network now known as Feeding America.
What are Food Banks?
The term “food bank” can be confusing, as most people equate it with “charitable food.” Today, there are four members of the Feeding America network that accept donations of food and funds in local communities across Arizona.
These are most often large warehouses and may or may not help individuals directly. Together, they distribute to more than 1,000 locations like community centers, churches, Boys and Girls Clubs, domestic violence shelters, senior centers and more in every community in Arizona. We refer to these organizations as agency partners.
How do Food Banks work?
Our network is so diverse; we provide millions of pounds of food for locations across the state, but we also focus on helping our clients stay healthy.
“If you have seen one food bank, you have seen one food bank.”Angie Rodgers, President & CEO AAFB
Last year our network helped families across Arizona put 150 million meals on the table. We do this by collecting food that might otherwise go to waste from growers to grocery stores to generous individuals.
That food often starts in one of our five member food banks- Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, Desert Mission Food Bank, St Mary’s Food Bank Alliance, United Food Bank and the Yuma Community Food Bank.
From there it could be given directly to a family in need or it could go to an agency partner to give to a family as part of other services like child care, housing, or employment.
But food banking is more than just “feeding the line”, we also work to “shorten the line” to better understand why our neighbors need our help.
Some food banks provide nutrition counseling to help manage dietary diseases like diabetes and hypertension; others focus on culinary training to help prepare for employment at restaurants and food service; while others offer support like clothing, housing and utility assistance, child care, and substance abuse treatment.
How do you qualify for Food Banks?
Our food banks are largely privately funded operations and different agencies have different requirements. However, for certain federal commodities you may be asked to sign a form certifying your identity and income.
In general, food banks ask that you provide proof of residency, and some ask for some form of ID. It also helps to call ahead of time so you know current hours of operation and requirements at each agency.
To find a list of food banks that serve your community, visit www.azfoodbanks.org where you can search by zip code.
What is the definition of hungry?
We don’t use the term hungry often in our work, as that seems to better fit the feeling you get between meals. In fact, the US Department of Agriculture made a distinction between hunger and food insecurity in saying,
“Hunger is an individual level physiological condition that may result from food insecurity.”US Department of Agriculture
Food insecurity is a “household level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.” This could mean you don’t make enough at your job to afford to meet your nutritional needs or you don’t have a car or public transportation to get to the grocery store that may be 10 miles away.
Addressing food insecurity is more than just providing emergency food relief, as the need for food competes with the need for other basic human necessities like medication, housing, utilities and transportation.
What is the definition of starvation?
Again food insecurity looks different in this country than in some third world countries where hunger could lead to suffering or death. Food insecurity for a child could mean they consistently come to school on Monday without having had any food that weekend. This could impact their ability to learn at school and stay healthy.
Food insecurity for an older adult could mean they make choices about paying for prescriptions or buying food. This could result in skipping meals or relying on less healthy options.
We also don’t have a food supply problem in the United States. We waste millions of pounds of food each day.Angie Rodgers, President & CEO AAFB
However, we do have logistics challenges in making sure people have enough food and it doesn’t end up in the landfill.
It would seem this is an easier problem to solve but garnering the public and political will and necessary resources to address food insecurity for all Arizonans can be very frustrating.
What does food insecurity look like in Arizona?
Arizona has one of the highest rates of food insecurity in the nation. According to Map the Meal Gap 2017, a study by Feeding America, nearly one million people struggle with food insecurity in Arizona. That’s 14% of our total population. This varies widely by county with Navajo County at 20.9% and Apache County at 24.2% to Santa Cruz County at 9.6%.
We are currently talking to individuals around the state about the impact of hunger in their lives. What we have heard has shocked me; some are one paycheck away from disaster, or made one choice that had a ripple effect or live one crisis away from bankruptcy.
We have also heard amazing stories of resiliency despite all of these challenges:
- One single mom told us about living in Pirtleville, a remote community in southern Arizona. It is a long commute to get anywhere. She lives with her mom and four year old and is studying nursing at Cochise College. She receives SNAP (what used to be known as food stamps) to help pay for food and visits the food pantry to supplement, because we know that SNAP doesn’t usually cover the need entirely. Between clinical work and school, she is unable to work and make additional money right now, but hopes to graduate next year.
- Another mom in Thatcher cares for her son who is legally blind and has cerebral palsy. She has been unable to work since losing her job 4 months ago due to her son’s health issues. They live in a trailer that costs $550 but can barely cover the other bills with her unemployment benefits and her son’s disability check. She is currently looking for a new job.
- Another older couple once had a thriving business but when the economy changed, they lost everything. They now rely on social security to meet all their needs. The couple makes choices about eating or paying the electric bill. They visit the food bank once a month to get some additional help.
- And one worker told us he works 30 hours a week at a convenience store and doesn’t make enough after he pays for rent and utilities. He receives $66 through SNAP and runs short every month so he visits the food bank to get enough to eat.
I hope you will go to our website to read more of the stories of hunger in our communities at http://www.azfoodbanks.org/index.php/public-policy.
How many children in Phoenix struggle with hunger?
Childhood hunger is particularly heartbreaking as we all want to children to have enough food to live, play and thrive in our families and communities.
The reality is that 1 in 4 children in Arizona struggle with food insecurity.Angie Rodgers, President & CEO AAFB
In Maricopa County, home to Phoenix, more than 200,000 kids may not know where their next meal will come from.
To put this in better perspective, each day more than 650,000 children in Arizona eat free or reduced price meals at school. Last year when teachers advocated for better pay and schools were closed, our food banks stepped in to help feed those children who couldn’t get those meals.
Our network could close the gap for 7,000 children so it really illustrates how important schools are to not just educating kids but also making sure they have adequate nutrition to pay attention and learn.
What are the choices for starving children in Phoenix?
Feeding children (and their families) is a big and important job—one that our food banks take very seriously. Our network feeds about 135,000 people per week through emergency food. But food banks also play a critical role in making sure children are fed during the school year and summer. For the months of June and July, when school is not in session, food banks sponsor locations where kids can get free meals. Often there are fun activities too! For a list of locations, go to https://www.azhealthzone.org/summerfood.
During the school year, kids can eat breakfast and lunch at school. If parents struggle to pay for meals, they may qualify for free or reduced price meals. Sometimes schools also have backpack programs to help feed children on the weekends. The child is given a small bag to take home on Friday with items like peanut butter, self-opening containers with fruit and snacks.
SNAP helps feed nearly 366,000 children each month by providing funds to purchase food in a grocery or convenience store. SNAP can be redeemed at nearly 4,000 locations across the state.
WIC helps children ages 0-5 and pregnant women meet their unique dietary requirements with foods like dairy, fruits and veggies and protein. Again, funds are provided to help purchase these items at retail stores all over the state.
Why are kids in America suffering from hunger pains?
There is no magic answer to why children struggle with food insecurity, but it is strongly correlated with poverty.Angie Rodgers, President & CEO AAFB
Nearly 1 in 4 children live in poverty, with parents who work low wage jobs, less than full time jobs, or who struggle with other barriers to work like transportation or child care that prevent them from staying attached to the workforce.
We also know that outreach and education about the programs mentioned above (summer and school feeding programs, SNAP and WIC) is important so families know what is available. Making these programs easier to access would go a long way in making sure kids have a solid connection to nutrition.
What do people in Phoenix, who don’t volunteer for your organization know about the AAFB?
I think many people in Arizona are familiar with our food bank members. They provide great opportunities to volunteer your time to help your struggling neighbors. Thank you!
For those who don’t know how or where to volunteer, I encourage you to visit our website to locate a food bank where you can help sort food or stock the shelves, assist seniors to their car, or help at special events.
AAFB is focused on supporting our members with transportation and logistics. We get food to food banks and ensure that food grown in certain communities gets to communities with more food insecure people. We also help schools learn about policies and programs that help feed more children. And we advocate for strong nutrition policy.
Food banking alone will not solve hunger and we need individuals, nonprofits, the faith community and government to all be working in concert together. To find out more about these efforts, send me an email at [email protected]! Or support this critical work by making a donation on our website at www.azfoodbanks.org.
We’re a “Qualified Charitable Organization” in Arizona. This means that your donation is eligible for a dollar-for-dollar tax credit when you file your state taxes. Most of our food banks are “QCOs” as well, so be sure to support them, too!
We thank Angie Rodgers for taking the time to answer some of your questions.
Angie brings more than 20 years’ experience in public policy research and advocacy focusing on human services. Prior to joining AAFB, she served in various capacities for the Arizona Department of Economic Security (DES).
Here’s what’s on my mind:
Politicians in America talk about wealth and how we live in a world of haves and have nots. They say things like the “Top 1 percent, (fill in your talking point)” and state a fact associated with this. They do this in order to promote a law or an idea to change the current state we live in. Their talking points may be factually correct but they are just talking points, not solutions.
How can we be the richest, wealthiest nation on the planet and have starving children in our communities?
Food insecurity is a complex problem. We rarely find simple solutions to complex problems.
We need to empower people with information and knowledge on where to get help. The AAFB is one of those organizations that everyone in our community should be aware of.
We’ve heard and used the term Hangry = irritable or angry because of hunger. When our coworkers, colleagues, or relatives have it we call them out on it. This term is typically used because someone didn’t eat breakfast or lunch is running late.
Now imagine someone not eating dinner? Just breakfast and lunch. Probably someone who would be very irritable? That’s a hangry person you wouldn’t want to be around.
Now picture that person being an 8 year old in 3rd grade.
What kind of learning is that 3rd grader doing? How is that child getting along in class?
The Phoenix Elementary District has 6,490 students and according to AAFB 1 in 4 students suffer from food insecurity.
1,600 students could be suffering from food insecurity.
In 2015-2016 there were more than 1119 students who one or more suspensions. 1481 total students with chronic absenteeism.
These are ELEMENTARY school kids.
Do we expect these students to just somehow magically become well-adjusted, well-fed high school kids, young adults, and then productive members of society?
This is why we need less talking points and more solutions. Luckily, the AAFB is one of them.
“If you lavish your food on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted; Then your light shall rise in the darkness, and your gloom shall become like midday; Then the LORD will guide you always and satisfy your thirst in parched places, will give strength to your bones and you shall be like a watered garden, like a flowing spring whose waters never fail.” Isaiah 58: 10-11