Jewish Federation, Foundation help address mounting problem of food insecurity in Southern Arizona

Community Food Bank team members provide food supplies in the drive-up emergency food distribution operation that runs Tuesdays and Thursdays at Kino Sports Complex. (Photo courtesy Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona)

It has been a long time since the Kino Sports Complex in Tucson has hosted more than a thousand cars on a regular basis. Yet that has been the scene many Tuesday and Thursday mornings in recent months as vehicles of all types, their occupants representing the diversity of the region, have been lining up, patiently waiting.

Kino is the largest remote site of the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona’s emergency food distribution operation. Coordinated by food bank staff, volunteers, and members of the National Guard, the scene there illustrates the growing economic hardship, triggered by the coronavirus pandemic, faced by many households in the region.

“In the first month of the pandemic, as runs on grocery stores were taking place, we saw a 100 percent increase in demand compared to previous years,” says Michael McDonald, CEO of the Community Food Bank. “Since then it’s fluctuated, but we are still serving between 30 to 50 percent more people this year than in 2019.”

Feeding America, the nation’s leading domestic hunger-relief organization, defines food insecurity as “a household’s inability to provide enough food for every person to live an active, healthy life.” It estimates a food insecurity rate of 17.2 percent for Pima County in 2020, up from a 13.6 percent rate reported in the organization’s most recent annual study based on data from 2018.

“Food insecurity existed long before the pandemic, and this just exacerbated it,” says Lindsey Baker, chief operating officer of the Jewish Federation and the Jewish Community Foundation of Southern Arizona. “Some individuals and families have struggled for generations, and the impact during this challenging period has been heartbreaking.”

Baker brings a deep background in the field, having served as Feeding America’s director of program development prior to joining JFSA/JCF.

On Oct. 6, Baker moderated a special event for JCF fund holders titled “COVID in Our Community: Food Insecurity.”

The surge in demand at food banks across Southern Arizona reflects an alarming rise in food insecurity here and nationwide.

“Before the pandemic there were 37 million Americans struggling with food insecurity, a figure nearly equivalent to the population of Canada,” says Josh Protas, vice president of Public Policy at MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, a national anti-hunger organization based in Los Angeles, with a strong presence in Washington, DC.  “Now we’re trending toward that figure nearly doubling due to coronavirus, which could lead to one in six individuals and one in four children at risk for not having enough food.”

Protas notes that those living in cities such as Tucson, where poverty has persisted for decades at scale, are particularly at risk.

Insufficient household income due to recent layoffs, lack of new employment opportunity, and low wages, compounded by longstanding poverty, are factors applying new financial pressure to many area residents.

Pima County’s unemployment rate for September 2020 (the most recent month for which statistics were available) was 6.5 percent, up 2.2 percent from the same month last year, according to the Economic and Business Research Center of the University of Arizona’s Eller College of Management.

The Arizona Department of Economic Security reports that average weekly continued claims (a measure of statewide filings for federal and state unemployment benefits on an ongoing basis) have risen six-fold from 23,345 to 140,668 this year through the end of October.

Social welfare leaders point out that unemployment benefits may help, but rarely cover anywhere near the total needs of a household. Consequently, local agencies are reporting a dramatic increase in requests for emergency assistance for housing, food supplies, and other essentials.

As it saw local need rising due to the impact of COVID-19 earlier this year, JFSA and JCF established the Jewish Community Pandemic Relief Fund. Since its announcement in early April, more than $400,000 has been raised from a range of donors.

“We were incredibly fortunate to have some visionary philanthropists in our community who, when they were approached, were very motivated to participate in a campaign that allowed them to match funds,” says Graham Hoffman, president and CEO of the Federation and Foundation. “We continue to be overwhelmed by the receptivity, responsiveness and generosity that have emerged in light of the pandemic.”

As of late October, the Pandemic Relief Fund had awarded more than $300,000 to social welfare organizations across Southern Arizona. Distributions are being administered in phases to local agencies so they may address the priority needs of their clients.

“Rather than rush as much money out as possible, our intent is to sustain the fund, so that our partners can continue to count on us as needs are prolonged and ongoing,” Hoffman says.

Pandemic Relief Fund disbursements have included $40,000 to Interfaith Community Services, which runs two food banks currently operating on a drive-through basis. ICS also provides senior services and sustains an emergency relief fund.

ICS Director of Outreach and Partnership Tim Kromer says resources from the Jewish Community Pandemic Relief Fund “were pivotal when they came in. We received the grant prior to any substantial government funding, and at a time when we were experiencing huge demand from people needing funds to ward off eviction and pay for utilities. The flexibility of the way they brought these funds was very helpful.”

While ICS is “running pretty close to normal at 100 to 150 families coming through every day specifically for food,” Kromer notes the composition of those served has evolved during the pandemic. “We’re serving many new clients who have never sought food assistance in the past.”

A recent letter from a client of ICS’ food bank reads, “I’ve never been in a position where I needed help like this before. Until recently, I’ve always been the one to donate wherever and whatever I could. It is humbling being on the receiving end of such kindness.”

McDonald of the Community Food Bank says his organization has used money from the Pandemic Relief Fund primarily to purchase food. “We get a lot of food donated by the federal government, but there have been times this year when the food supply chain was stretched pretty thin. We’ve had to reserve semi-trailer-sized orders, some with long lead times, including for certain regional items such as pinto beans, which are always in high demand.”

The JFSA/JCF Pandemic Relief Fund strives to operate nimbly, in one instance approving $25,000 for the Community Food Bank to rescue more than 30,000 meals from the international border that otherwise were destined for landfill.

Some $40,000 so far has been distributed by the fund to Jewish Family & Children’s Services for its Jewish Emergency Financial Assistance program, and for JFCS’ ongoing procurement and distribution of food cards mailed to Jewish individuals and families in need. The fund also enabled JFCS to use the Handi-Car service for its Mitzvah Magic and Matza & More deliveries of food assistance to Jewish families.

“Pandemic relief funding from the Federation and Foundation has provided us with additional resources and greater flexibility to support those facing challenges during this difficult time,” says Susan Kasle, vice president of community services at JFCS. “This special funding allows us to direct additional food assistance as needs arise.”

The team administering the Jewish Community Pandemic Relief Fund has followed an inclusive and collaborative approach to broaden the reach and effectiveness of its mission. More recent grants include $20,000 provided by the David and Lura Lovell Foundation to support the needs of Southern Arizona’s Tribal Nations, as one example. Additionally, the fund is working in concert with similar initiatives established by the Community Foundation for Southern Arizona, United Way of Southern Arizona, and with other nonprofits throughout the area.

A major issue cited by social welfare leaders is the growing imbalance in the level of food aid local philanthropies are endeavoring to provide to satisfy local demand, and aid reaching those in need from the nation’s primary food assistance resource, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“SNAP provides myriad benefits that support the ability for the underserved to buy food, and ensure their general health and wellbeing,” says Liz Kanter Groskind, national board chair of MAZON and a Tucson philanthropist. “Yet SNAP is inadequately funded and challenging to access for many who should qualify for its benefits. This leaves too much asked of food banks and philanthropies to make up for SNAP’s inadequate reach and overall effectiveness. That needs to change, and soon, or the scourge of hunger in this country will significantly worsen.”

Jon Kasle is a communications consultant and freelance writer.