Efren Martinez (right), 22, and his friend Marcos Perez try to get neighborhood kids interested in gardening at Las Milpitas de Cottonwood farm, which is run by the local food bank in Tucson, Ariz.
Efren Martinez (right), 22, and his friend Marcos Perez try to get neighborhood kids interested in gardening at Las Milpitas de Cottonwood farm, which is run by the local food bank in Tucson, Ariz. Pam Fessler/NPR
Food banks around the country face growing demand, despite improvements in the economy. Many families are still underemployed and struggling. So some food banks are looking for more permanent ways to address hunger, beyond handing out food.
One of them is the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, based in Tucson. Among the many programs it runs is Las Milpitas de Cottonwood, a community farm located in one of the city's lower-income neighborhoods.
More than 50 families have garden plots there. Most, like Jamie Senik, who lives in a nearby trailer park, are regular clients at the food bank.
Food bank client Jamie Senik takes a break near her garden plot sponsored by the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona. She grows food for herself and her diabetic mother.
Food bank client Jamie Senik takes a break near her garden plot sponsored by the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona. She grows food for herself and her diabetic mother. Pam Fessler/NPR
Working under the hot morning sun, Senik says the ground at the farm might look hard and dry, but it's good for growing. Her plot is surprisingly green.
"I have tomatoes and basil, cucumbers and peppers and some beans," she says, walking around her plot. Senik says the food bank provides the land, the seeds and the water: "All I have to do is plant it and tend it."
But then she gets to reap the benefits. Senik says the fresh produce is a big help for her and her mother, who has diabetes.
Robert Ojeda, who oversees the program, calls it "part of a growing movement within food banking." Ojeda says as the number of people seeking emergency aid continues to grow, food banks have started thinking about what more they can do to help their clients become more self-sufficient.
He says it involves "thinking about long-term solutions to the problem of hunger and really getting at the core issues."
Besides operating this farm, the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona has helped about 1,000 people set up home gardens. It encourages those who grow more than they need to earn extra cash by selling the surplus at farmers' markets, which are also run by the food bank.
The food bank also trains people to raise chickens and bees. And president and CEO Bill Carnegie says it has programs to help local schoolchildren learn about nutrition and food.
Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona President and CEO Bill Carnegie says the food bank uses this area to teach clients how to raise chickens.
Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona President and CEO Bill Carnegie says the food bank uses this area to teach clients how to raise chickens. Pam Fessler/NPR
"I was at a little session, probably a year ago, with I think it was fourth-graders, and they were asked where carrots come from. Not one child knew that carrots grew in the ground," he recalls.
Many U.S. food banks are doing similar work, as they warily eye the future. They're especially worried about efforts in Congress to cut federal food aid, including food stamps, which many of their clients use.
Carnegie says you have to take a holistic approach if you want people to thrive. He says many of his clients need jobs, but they also have to be healthy enough to do them.
"We're one of the few food banks in the country that we only accept healthy foods being donated to us. We turn down truckloads of chips or truckloads of things that aren't really considered healthy for people to eat," he says.
Back at the community farm, 22-year-old Efren Martinez pulls two huge green zucchinis out from under a plant.
"These are really good to make zucchini bread with," he says.
Martinez has been gardening since high school and says there's nothing like eating something you've grown. He and a few friends have taken over several plots here, so they can work with neighborhood kids to get them interested in gardening and the benefits that go with it.
"A space for where they feel they belong at," says Martinez. "And also to do it in a drop-in, drop-out sort of way, so they can bring their friends and kind of come and go as they please."
They've got only four takers so far, but Martinez hopes the idea will catch on.
That's another goal of the food bank — getting people here more involved in the well-being of their community. It hopes that also will eventually yield something good.