The hundreds of cars lined up Nov. 25 for frozen turkeys and bags of food from St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance were three times the number at the same event last year.
“We knew that our demand was going to go up for the holidays, but it has stunned us how much it went up this week,” said Beverly Damore, a spokeswoman for the organization.
It’s not just here, and it’s not just because of the holidays, officials say. With Arizona still in the recession’s grip, many food banks are seeing increased demand coupled with donations that aren’t keeping up.
“Food banks have cut down on food,” said Brian Simpson, spokesman for the Association of Arizona Food Banks.
“What we are seeing is more people are donating, but maybe they are donating less,” he added.
Arizona food banks have distributed 110 million of pounds of food statewide so far this year, up nearly 50 million pounds from the same time last year, Simpson said.
St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance, Arizona’s largest distributor to food banks, is providing 300,000 pounds of food a day, up 56 percent from last year.
Without volunteers, Damore said, the alliance would have had to decrease the amount of food it distributes. This past year the alliance has had about 96,000 volunteers provide 374,000 hours of community service, up from 230,000 the year before.
“If we had to pay those people it would cost $7.6 million,” Damore said.
Flagstaff-based Northern Arizona Food Bank, one of those receiving food from St. Mary’s, has seen the number of families served jump by 1,200 since last year. The total amount of food distributed so far this year is up by 35,783 pounds since last year, said Kerry Ketchum, the organization’s executive director.
“We’ve seen a reduction in donations yet a huge increase in demand,” Ketchum said. “I don’t think anyone thought it would be this bad, and I don’t think we’re out of the woods yet.”
Robin McArdle-Landers, director of Amory Senior Center Food Bank in Tucson, said lines are longer than ever; sometimes a quarter of the people are turned away.
“It’s hit us really hard because we have elderly people on a fixed income, and with the economy the way it is folks’ checks run out earlier,” she said.
Executive Director Zarinah Awad said the Cultural Cup Food Bank in Phoenix has seen the number of families seeking assistance increase from about 80 per week a few years ago to the nearly 400 a week today.
“We get people coming in with tears in their eyes asking for food and most of them just tell us they have lost their jobs, and sometimes we don’t have the food ” Awad said. “It’s kind of crazy.”
Simpson, with the Association of Arizona Food Banks, said distributors have requested help from federal programs, appealed to the community for donations and decreased staff. Federal stimulus money has been a huge help, but Arizona’s high unemployment rate remains a challenge, he said.
“We have people requesting help this year that in past years have been donors,” Simpson said.