Maria Chavez

Maria Chavez working at the All Faith Community food bank (West Valley View photo by Pablo Robles)

West siders may not realize just how many of their neighbors are going hungry. And while local food banks do a lot to fill the need, they are asking residents to get involved to help those in the community.

In the United States, around 40 million people struggle with hunger, including more than 12 million children, according to nonprofit hunger relief organization Feeding America. In Arizona, the problem of “food insecurity,” or lack of consistent access to adequate food, affects 2 million people. That’s according to St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance, a group that serves two-thirds of the state.

A staggering 30 percent of Arizonans are considered working poor with little money to spare for food, especially balanced and nutritious meals that include things like fresh fruits and vegetables. It’s a number that keeps many in the Valley working to fill in those gaps.

Cassie Wilkins is the executive director of All Faith Community Services: Buckeye, a group contracted with St. Mary’s to provide services to the city and its surrounding communities.

“It is the most expansive social services area in Maricopa,” she explained, adding that All Faith services 2,300 homes scattered around the far West Valley. With that comes many challenges, including getting food to those who need it most.

One way it reaches the hungry is through the school system. According to All Faith, in some Buckeye elementary schools as much as 98 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced meal programs. Several years ago, one Buckeye principal did a survey and found that while the students were being fed at school, some were not eating much on the weekends at home. The principal reached out to All Faith for help.

That’s when All Faith started its “Weekend Snack Sack” project, in which it provides a variety of food items for hungry school children to bring home and use over the weekend. It’s so essential that these students are getting key nutrients during their developmental years, Wilkins explained.

“Kids can’t think, process or grow if they have nutrition issues,” she said. They’ve seen great success with the weekend snack program, though it’s always a challenge to make sure there are shelf stable proteins like meat or beans available to the children. For those looking to donate food items, canned meats, beans or soups are always a big need.

Wilkins added while some people living in poverty may be on food stamps, they will try to stretch that amount as far as they can by getting cheap and filling items that aren’t as nutrient dense. A lack of fruits and vegetables can lead to health issues over time. Food banks in the West Valley receive shipments of a variety of nutritious food items from local grocery stores that volunteers then pack for the hungry. Area food banks also offer “Mobile Food Pantries” where people can get free fruits and vegetables at various west side locations throughout the month. It’s all to fill in those gaps.

Local food banks and their partners do so much to feed hungry Arizonans, but Wilkins added it’s really up to west side residents as a whole to help feed their neighbors in need.

“We have to engage as a community,” Wilkins said. “People can participate in school food drives, fill the food bins at the library and city hall, and work with local clubs and churches to meet the needs of those around us.”

Isaac Orona, community engagement coordinator for St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance, added he loves getting up to go to work every day and making a difference in people’s lives.

“I get to work with different interesting and fun people and experience communities all over the state,” he explained. His job is to find partners within Arizona communities that can offer resources people need, or St. Mary’s can provide resources directly if resources are not yet available.

Orona has seen so many volunteers in the West Valley giving of their own resources to benefit others. And while food is essential to filling hungry tummies, volunteers also offer the gift of time and kindness.

“It’s a lot more than handing out food,” he said. “It’s about that human connection.”