On the Road at Tucson Community Food Bank: Up the Rough Side of the Mountain

Learn more about the inner workings of the Tucson Community Food Bank; a food bank that is grappling with a complex political climate and an efficient rural distribution system.

by Jessica Powers, WhyHunger

Located in the warehouse district of the city, the Tucson Community Food Bank is a model of efficiency. The 100 thousand square feet and 28 feet high space— roughly the size of two football fields— hums with the sound of palette jacks and forklifts. There are neatly stacked palettes of cans, totes brimming with repacked bags of dried beans, shelf-stable food being sorted into various boxes representing different distribution programs, and webs of scaffolding throughout the warehouse. Eric Hitzeman, VP of Operations, previously worked at a meatpacking plant in Chicago, and that expertise shows. Posters of material safety data sheets hang on the walls, and the space is clean, well-lit, and meticulously organized. Over 29 million pounds of food were distributed through their programs last year. Every month, over 225,000 people receive assistance through the food bank’s programs. The food bank is also an innovator, with a Community Food Resource Center  that offers desert gardening education, a playground, and a community garden that supplies a weekly farmers market outside. “It can take three bus [transfers] and two hours [for a client] to get here. So when you see a mom relaxing with her kids out here, it’s really nice,” says Sandie Hinojos-Cuen, Family Advocate.

Yet — just like many food banks around the country in these times of growing food insecurity — this regional food bank is not without its challenges. Twice annual audits prevent mismanagement of the kind that impacted and led to the unfortunate closure of a nearby food bank. “Fair and equitable” distribution and regulations also impose their own sets of restrictions. Sometimes the service model means that new initiatives take time to garner board support, as they are seen as outside the scope of serving pounds of food to the hungry. Tucson Community Food Bank recently expanded to include Cochise, Graham, Santa Cruz, and Greenlee counties, which have different needs because of their rural geography. The internal challenges for the organization are to continue to reflect community needs, more funding for innovative programs, and more help for the rural areas it serves.

Transportation issues and rising fuel costs pose complications. The food bank collects supermarket donations from big box stores and local supermarkets. The board approved a change from charging 18 cents per pound to distributing those items for free to partner agencies. But, the 350-400 approved organizations need to pick up the items directly from Tucson. Having to ask volunteers to use their own vehicles and to pay for gas results in fewer rural food banks using the agency market. But the partner agencies that do make it are allowed to come daily and competition is strong. Agencies must now schedule a time and they have 20 minutes to shop.

Similarly, reporting requirements can lead to inefficiencies. Food bank customers are asked to self-declare need, provide an ID, and a utility bill proving their county of residence. Sometimes they will drive an hour and a half to the food bank closest to them for a co-located service and learn that there is another food bank serving their county, two hours in the opposite direction.

Building capacity in the rural areas is another challenge. Small town politics, limited hours of operation, and lack of adequate facilities complicate the problem. Sometimes food is delivered to a place that is “not a site,” perhaps a church basement or an empty lot where tables are temporarily set up. Household refrigerators and freezers are common, and don’t readily accommodate cases of produce or animal protein. One strategy is the placement of refrigerated, sea-going containers at six remote sites and a phone tree to coordinate deliveries.

Arizona is one of four places in the country to mandate fingerprinting for users of SNAP (formerly Food Stamps). In an increasingly contentious political climate in which emergency food providers are told that “churches should feed people,” and TEFAP and other food programs are threatened, the complexity and need for large-scale food distribution must not be forgotten. The staff of the Tucson Community Food Bank are committed and passionate about their work. They continue to persevere and work to improve community food security so that one day their services will not be needed.