By Fran Lyons

Wendy Webb, executive director of F.O.R. Maricopa food bank, hoped to get a portion of the financial aid for food banks that came out of the CARES Act.

But that didn’t happen.

In Arizona most federal funding went to the St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance, Feeding America and United Food Bank for allocation. Applying to those food banks for distribution of the funds came with challenges that Webb said exposed its own vulnerabilities.

Masked and gloved volunteers hand out food items from F.O.R. Maricopa food bank’s window during the crisis. Photo by Kyle Norby

What F.O.R. did get was more volunteers. Mentored by senior volunteers, new helpers included retired military personnel, teachers “in limbo” or retired residents and kids out of school. Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts have been willing and eager to help.

“Kids are willing to do anything to help out,” said F.O.R. volunteer Carol Webb, Wendy’s mother. “What needs to be done, needs to be done. We just do it.”

In the midst of crisis, beacons of light emerge. Among these are Maricopa’s local food banks and the donors who contribute to them.

F.O.R. (Food, Opportunity, Resources) Maricopa and Maricopa Pantry have stepped up all aspects of their operations to make sure the community is being served by providing food and nourishment and necessary resources, with care and respect, to individuals, families and senior citizens.

The community need quickly became evident at both food banks. Long lines of cars beyond the usual turn up for distribution days. The increase in April was estimated at 30%-40% and it has continued to grow.

Motorists queue up at F.O.R. Maricopa for the food distribution. Photo by Kyle Norby

At the same time, physical distancing due to COVID-19 made hosting an event for a food drive impossible.

A special program called Copa Cares was launched in March to help facilitate emergency services for seniors and individuals requiring special assistance during coronavirus.

“We have all endured a wound, and we’re here to help heal it,” said Wendy Webb. “While nothing will be solved overnight, we’re looking at the big picture, constantly revising and evolving our programs yet remaining present and taking one day at a time.”

Along with local donations of nonperishables, food banks receive food items from larger alliances like St. Mary’s, which supplies organizations in nine counties. Most of that food is in cans or boxes, so when Webb wanted to provide more fresh fruits and vegetables at F.O.R. Maricopa, she ended up shopping in local grocery aisles.

“People have been hit hard with overwhelm and fear.,” Webb said. “We are here to help relieve suffering by looking toward meaningful things that focus on celebrating moments that bring us joy and reinforcement. What you do today makes a difference today.”

Photo by Kyle Norby

Now located in the Blue Business Building, F.O.R. Maricopa has seen many changes since it began in 2007. Feeding and aiding just a few families has evolved into a full-fledged resource center. With its drive-up windows, the location now makes it easier to adhere to social-distancing guidelines. The staff also follows the guidelines as required as food handlers.

Like the volunteer group at F.O.R. Maricopa, the masked-and-gloved volunteers at Maricopa Pantry spell each other during those heady distribution days and have learned to work with amazing speed.

Maricopa Pantry, aka Mountain View Community Church, was established in Hidden Valley over 17 years ago and founded by Jim Shoaf. He is a man with a mission. Well known around town, he is fondly called “The food bank guy.”

Jim Shoaf of Maricopa Pantry. Photo by Raquel Hendrickson

As a critical community resource, Maricopa Pantry provided more than 600,000 pounds of food and commodities in March and April during the COVID-19 crisis. Each distribution day, they are serving more than 700 families.

“We’ve been major busy,” Shoaf said.

During these challenging times for many, people have lined up in cars instead of in person, which has changed the dynamics of how the pantry operates. “We need to talk, because they’ve got stories and they’ve got problems, and even a little prayer would help,” Shoaf said. “That’s what it’s all about, the kindred spirit of the city.”

The situation has taught his crew how to move faster and load boxes of food more quickly, skills that will outlast COVID-19.

The Maricopa Pantry’s well-trained crew quickly puts together food boxes during distribution. Photo by Raquel Hendrickson

“I don’t think we’ll have near the waits that we’ve had, because these guys are pros now,” Shoaf said. “Even St. Mary’s came down to give us the food the first week they were here. They looked at me and said, ‘You guys are pros. Why are we even here trying to tell you how to do it?’”

For Shoaf and other volunteers with COPD, wearing a face mask has been one of the most difficult aspects of distribution day, because the mask makes it difficult to breathe. Shoaf’s oxygen level went down to 82% on one distribution day, so he only wears the mask if he is on the frontline.

He said the pantry has never experienced an event that caused such need in the community as COVID-19. The Saturday distribution of food boxes usually starts at 8 a.m., but cars have lined up as early as 6 a.m.

Patient residents wait in line in their cars at Maricopa Pantry in Hidden Valley. Photo by Raquel Hendrickson

He has a good crew and plenty of committed volunteers who are essential to getting the job done. Groups deliver food to Eloy and Tucson, and individuals deliver boxes to locals who cannot get out. Shoaf had to overcome strategic challenges this year such as AC/refrigeration going down, the theft of diesel gasoline, and the need to purchase two more trailers.

“We also lost over 1 million chicks this spring in six to eight farms, affecting meat from chickens and also eggs,” he said.

Nonetheless, nothing stops Shoaf from “giving a hand up and not a handout.”

Shoaf loves what he does. He is all about his church and his community with the intention to serve so all may thrive and grow. Even when stretched thin, resources always seem to come.

“Right now, we don’t sweat the funds, because they just sort of happen,” he said.

The food banks depend on the generous donors who are integral to feeding and supporting the community. They will tell you businesses, groups and individuals that donate money, food or their time are the “hand up” for all those in need. It is with gratitude and respect that all donations are received.

To qualify to receive services from F.O.R. an individual or family is required to register. The form is available along with a full list of resources.

To qualify to receive services from Maricopa Pantry food bank, one needs only to come and take what they need. They have simply been taking names and addresses. Donations are always welcome.

This story appears in the June issue of InMaricopa.