Keeping Food on the Table

by Merilee Baptiste

At Midwest Food Bank Arizona on the Mesa-Gilbert border, the COVID-19 pandemic took an already busy year and sent it spiraling into crisis mode. As community aid agencies dedicated to feeding those in need experienced a massive spike in requests for assistance and usually reliable supply chains broken down under the stress of the coronavirus, MFB Arizona needed to pivot on a dime to meet an unprecedented surge in demand.

Fortunately, the food bank — which currently serves more than 320 partner agencies statewide — had help from multiple sources, agencies and organizations who stepped up to help MFB Arizona help others. The City of Mesa, which received more than $90 million in federal aid as a result of the CARES Act, awarded MFB Arizona a $200,000 grant, which the food bank used to purchase a 12-week supply of food. This was a huge boon, given that MFB’s network of volunteer tractor-trailer drivers had been struggling to find food available for donation anywhere in the Western United States.

The State of Arizona also stepped up, in the form of the Arizona National Guard. For months, volunteer Guardsmen have helped MFB Arizona load and unload food, and assisted in expanding its trucking fleet to seven semi-tractors and 13 trailers. The Guard also trucked and helicoptered pallets of food and resources to the hard-hit Navajo Nation reservation in the northeastern corner of the state. This meaningful influx of manpower enabled MFB Arizona to serve not only the Navajos, but three additional tribal communities across the state.

The private sector also serves as a force multiplier for MFB Arizona at a time when many manufacturers — the food bank’s typical source of donations — have had fewer extra and expiring products left to donate. Sundt Construction donated $20,000 in a grant through its charitable foundation. National First Response and Hauling AZ partnered with MFB Arizona on a massive food drive to help Navajo families in need. And Bimbo Bakeries scheduled donations three days a week to help MFB meet its need for bread and other baked products.

These efforts, combined with a surge of volunteers at Midwest’s Baseline Road warehouse, have allowed the food bank to begin to chip away at its waiting list — a list MFB Arizona had never before needed in its four years of community service in the Valley. During the pandemic, new requests for assistance have continued to come in at the rate of two to five new agencies each week.

For comparison’s sake, in 2019 MFB Arizona distributed more than $18 million in donated goods and services to partner agencies statewide. In 2020, the nonprofit has distributed $17.9 million in donated goods and services — in just the first six months of the year.

Each month, MFB Arizona’s efforts touch more than 300,000 lives in neighborhoods all over the state. The exponential expansion of the organization’s work and mission has been done without adding a single employee during the pandemic. MFB Arizona has continued to funnel 99 cents of every $1 donated directly into goods and services, not overhead.

Since we were founded in 2016, Midwest Food Bank Arizona has grown by leaps and bounds each year. But the pandemic has created a situation where we’ve needed to grow on steroids. Typically, you want to grow steadily, so you can plan for it. With COVID-19, it has been an all-hands-on-deck situation. We’re solving problems and marshaling resources in real time and doing everything we can to be flexible and get people the assistance they need immediately.

Merilee Baptiste is executive director for Arizona Division of Midwest Food Bank

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