Last fall we checked in with Weiner's customer St. Mary’s Food Bank in Arizona to learn about their mission to end hunger in their service area. St. Mary’s was the first food bank in the world; for 52 years, they’ve collected and distributed meals through the efforts of a robust network of volunteers, farmers and businesses. Every year, they distribute 98 million pounds of food to more than 700 nonprofit partners across nine counties – which makes St. Mary’s one of the largest food banks in the country.
Then, the pandemic.
No one could have foreseen the tragedy of COVID-19 and the way it would throw families across the country into financial uncertainty over the course of 2020. It is now estimated that 1 in 6 Americans could face hunger as a result of the pandemic. So, during the giving season in this difficult year, we checked back in with Lisa Notaro at St. Mary’s Food Bank to learn how the pandemic has affected their critically important efforts.
“Our service territory, 81,000 square miles, is two-thirds of the state of Arizona,” she said. “At the same time the state shut down in March and we lost all our volunteers, our client count doubled. Where before we would see about 800 families a day, with the pandemic that number skyrocketed to about 1,500 families a day.”
Whereas volunteering for St. Mary’s was not deemed an essential activity, working there was – so the organization’s 200 employees rushed to fill the gaps left when 250 volunteers can’t show up for a shift.
“Our staff were being pulled from their office jobs and whatever they were doing to go pack food boxes and help us put food in clients' cars,” Lisa said. “It was very, very challenging for us.”
The organization was able to hire temporary labor such as off-duty police officers to help with traffic congestion around the food distribution building. In addition, the government provided, and continues to provide, 50 National Guard troops every day. Corporate volunteers were again allowed in the fall, but instead of 500 a day split between two shifts, now the organization manages around 60.
St. Mary’s was also challenged by the closure of about 50 nonprofits out of the 700 that accept and distribute St. Mary’s donations in their local areas. These organizations include homeless shelters, women’s shelters, senior centers, and churches.
“Some closed overnight because they were run by elderly volunteers who suddenly needed to stay at home for their own safety,” Lisa said. “But we did it. In April we provided 10 million pounds of food to people in Arizona, which was a record.”
What’s Happening Now
Fast forward several months, and the organization has proven its resilience:
- Due to generous donations, government aid, and purchases made with some reserve cash put aside for just such an emergency, St. Mary’s is giving out more food to each family than ever before – the equivalent of an overflowing shopping cart full of shelf-stable and canned items as well as dairy, meats, bread, and several varieties of fresh produce.
- The organization’s website has been expanded to both provide and solicit information about how the pandemic is affecting the community and individual families.
- A statewide marketing program, including donated billboard placements, is reminding residents that St. Mary’s is open, still running full-force, and available to provide help.
In addition, the organization has greatly expanded its homebound delivery program with help from the state of Arizona. They’ve contracted with a delivery company to deliver food to people in need who don’t have transportation or are not able to leave the house. The program began in early November and within two weeks was delivering to more than 100 households a day.
However, St. Mary’s is now missing an integral part of their business: Face-to-face interaction. Deliveries have moved to a drive-through, touch-free format. It’s faster and carries less risk for everyone involved, but Lisa notes it brings a new set of challenges.
“We don't get to have those conversations with people to find out if there’s anything else we can help with. For instance, if people are having trouble with their electric bill, we can connect them with the electric company; if they’re not getting food stamp benefits, we can tell them where to go. But we don’t have this option anymore.”
What the Future Could Bring
While they look forward to having those in-person conversations again, Lisa expects that in-person fundraising events are gone for good. They’ve been replaced by zoom calls, phone calls, and virtual tours of the food bank. To keep thousands of interested people in the loop, they’ve started doing teleconferenced “town halls” with the CEO. Lisa hopes the home delivery program will continue in its expanded format. And she has one other thing she hopes will last well into the future.
“It's the appreciation, and that we all don't take things for granted. Not your health, not your family,” she said. “We’ve changed. People are kinder. And we’re getting so much support in helping people with the absolute, most basic need that they have for food and water. The pandemic has shown us the good in so many people.”
For instance, more than 1,000 people gifted their economic recovery stimulus checks to St. Mary’s. Others donated their unused vacation funds. One shared that she was donating the money from her refunded college football season tickets.
But even here are challenges.
"The flip side is that some people who were our donors last holiday season are now clients,” Lisa said. “They'll call us and say, I need to stop doing my automatic monthly donation, or, you sent me a letter asking for a donation, but I can’t make one. And also, where can I go to get food?”
How You Can Help
To get involved with mitigating hunger in your community, St. Mary’s recommends contacting Feeding America, a food bank network that requires participating organizations to meet regulations for food safety and handling and also undergo regular audits for compliance and operational efficiency.
After you’ve located your local food bank, consider donating whatever you can to help those in your community. Even a small donation can buy, for instance, a two-ounce bottle of shampoo, which could go a long way toward helping someone retain their dignity and sense of worth. Weiner's considers it part of their mission to help St. Mary’s and other nonprofits make the most of their purchasing dollars in order to provide quality travel-size toiletries to those in need.
“The nonprofits can often do much more with your money than you think,” Lisa said. “For example, at St. Mary’s, a one-dollar donation provides seven meals. That’s because we have buying power and a network of partners who donate food. But the need is just so great.”