Feeding neighbors takes many villages as pandemic recovery continues
by Toni Denis
When the pandemic began last year, the sudden lockdown left a lot of people without incomes. Even though mortgages and rents were temporarily frozen, families and individuals began to seek out food to put on the table. Long-established food banks and pantries saw a surge in demand; hot-meal providers shut down. Others in the community who recognized the urgency began to collect money and create meals to keep the wolf from the door of hundreds of people who needed help for the first time.
From Prescott to Ash Fork, Sedona to Black Canyon City, the response starting in March 2020 came swiftly from nonprofits, churches, service organizations, veterans organizations and local businesses, which were able to provide locations for food-box and takeout-meal distribution.
The Prescott Farmer’s Market collected donations to help provide farm-fresh food to neighbors who drove through to pick them up. The Quad Cities-based Hungry Kids program continued operating even though the schools were closed, providing backpacks of weekend food for children who qualified for the free lunch program. Real Hope, an all-volunteer nonprofit based in Prescott Valley that launched in November 2019, ramped up its efforts last March and still supplies as many as 2,000 food boxes per week to area families from donations by restaurants, businesses, churches, the American Legion, and individuals.
While many people are back at work now, elevated demand for donated food remains, partly due to lost income that has made it difficult for people to recover, and partly because of rising rents. For some the need continues because of a struggle to relocate as their rented homes are sold in a hot market, driven in part by what appears to be a historic shift by the untethered, remote workforce and retirees to move out of cities into rural areas.
Manzanita Outreach exemplifies how food-distribution scaled up in the county to make sure that people had access to fresh-food boxes. According to Mike Newcomb, Executive Director, the nonprofit tries to fill the gaps in our area when it comes to food insecurity.
Named Nonprofit of the Year in 2020 by the Arizona Community Foundation of Sedona, during the pandemic the Cottonwood-based 501(c)3 began to serve rural areas like Ash Fork, Seligman, Skull Valley, Kirkland, the Verde Valley and even Prescott and Prescott Valley as local nonprofits struggled to meet demand. Because it receives food in a warehouse and has trucks to move it around, it was able to rapidly distribute boxes of food to drive-through events across the county.
“Between March and May of 2020 we quadrupled the number of families we served,” Newcomb said.
Over eight weeks the nonprofit served ten communities, carrying boxes of fresh food in its refrigerated truck during the lockdown, until other nonprofits regained their volunteers and adjusted to need. Through 2020 the organization distributed two million pounds of food in the county, more than twice its amount for the previous year. A total of 39,000 people picked up food.
In addition, Manzanita Outreach started a new program, MO Packs for Kids, providing five meals and snacks per child under 19 that parents could pick up on Saturdays as part of a pilot program to make up for schools closing and the loss of hot lunches. The program serves 525 children in the Verde Valley with no paid marketing, just word of mouth.
As part of its effort to help people find available food distribution, Manzanita Outreach established a website, Mohelp.org, where food-distribution locations and schedules are listed by area, covering the Quad Cities, Verde Valley and the county’s rural communities.
While the crisis is over, the need remains strong.
“What I see now, talking with quite a few others, is that the numbers have come down from our peak,” Newcomb said. “In our case, maybe a 15% drop. An average family gets about 50 pounds of food, which substantially helps with their food bill and keeps the utilities on.”
The food bank served 500 families in December, still a large number. Newcomb said he believes that’s due in part to the rising cost of living.
“What’s gotten worse is housing costs rising,” Newcomb said. “In the Verde Valley, Cottonwood and Village of Oak Creek, rental homes are being bought by investors.” An estimated 1,000 homes or more in Sedona alone are being used for short-term vacation rentals, according to a January 2019 article in The Arizona Republic. The increase came when the state legislature passed a bill that went into effect in 2017 forcing municipalities to allow short-term rentals, with a provision to collect state lodging taxes while maintaining their residential classification.
Newcomb noted that in April an employee who moved to the area was only able to find a $2,100 per month rental, and as he was signing the contract the landlord told him that he had an offer from another prospective tenant who proposed paying two years’ rent in advance.
“Another thing is that the moratorium on evictions allowed a lot of people to stay where they were, and now that will run out in June, so there will be that many more people looking for homes,” Newcomb said.
Prescott Meals on Wheels
When the pandemic hit, Bert Ijams, executive director of Prescott Meals on Wheels, said the challenge was to maintain safety for volunteers and its homebound and elderly clients while still providing meals. To do that, they developed the HOT+4 or more program, in which volunteers delivered one hot meal and four frozen ones on Wednesdays. This allowed a lot more flexibility for serving clients and reducing contact. They placed meals either outside the home or, if the client was disabled, brought them in while masked and gloved. Sanitizer, gloves and other PPE were provided to drivers. None of the staff got sick, Ijams said.
While the daily deliveries stopped, daily contact did not.
“Our volunteer drivers call everyone for welfare checks and companionship,” Ijams said. “It’s been incredibly rewarding with so many stories coming from people.” When toilet paper was in short supply, Ijams lined up nine cases of it from Costco so that each of the 300 clients could have one roll delivered with each meal, which meant a lot to them in a time of uncertainty.
The number of meals requested, too, went up 21% over demand two years ago, Ijams noted, due to three factors.
“Number one, people with underlying conditions wanted to stay home.” Second, because of the CARES Act, the Northern Arizona Council of Governments’ Agency on Aging funded an increase of meals per person, so that five meals became seven that were subsidized. Third, the adult children of clients were fearful of their parents catching Covid and either signed them up or encouraged them to sign up for the program, Ijams said.
In addition, the daily hot lunch served in the Meals on Wheels dining room became a curbside service where people could order, then pick up. The meals cost just $7 each and are available to the general public. The facility has been closed to the public since March 2020 and isn’t expected to open sooner than June or July.
The numbers of those being served curbside compared to the dining room dropped dramatically, however. Ijams said the social component of sharing a meal and playing bingo or some other activity at the adjacent Adult Center of Prescott likely contributed to lower interest.
Since 35% of the residents of Prescott are 65 or older, Ijams said she thinks more people would use the program if they were aware of it or realized that it’s a way to ensure that people have access to nutritious, hot food.
“We hear people say (they think) somebody else needs the service more than I do, but everyone has access to it,” Ijams said.
Gato Community Gives
El Gato Azul restaurant owner Barry Barbe sent out hot meals and took donations for those in need at the beginning of the pandemic, and is continuing to help in the community through this collaborative fund operated by the Arizona Community Foundation. Currently the fund is used for “Finding and Making the Good” awards of money and recognition for charitable groups that help in the Quad-Cities area.
Coalition for Compassion and Justice
CCJ Executive Director Jessi Hans said that one of the positives that came out of the pandemic was that churches and other groups stepped up to meet the shelter’s needs for its homeless clients, many of whom were unable to get hot meals from their usual locations when the pandemic hit. CCJ has a food pantry, but no hot-meal operation.
“People were saying ‘how can I help,’ and were coming together to create solutions,” Hans said. “We had ten whole weeks where we were a 24-hour shelter with two meals a day for 30 people. Individuals were making meals and delivering them, and even parents with three kids were pitching in with contactless drop-off. They made humongous meals for us, and it made a difference when they gave back.”
Hans confirmed that Prescott is also being affected by rising rents and the lack of affordable housing, adding that her agency and others are doing what they can to help keep people from becoming homeless, because rents have doubled in the past five years.
Though the pandemic situation is normalizing as more people are vaccinated, the high cost of housing on a family budget means nonprofit food-providers are needed more than ever.
As Mike Newcomb of Manzanita Outreach jokes, there’s no risk of food providers going out of business.
Toni Denis is a frequent contributor to 5enses.