Despite some improvements in the economy since the recession officially ended four years ago, many American families still find themselves underemployed and struggling to put food on the table. Some of the food banks that serve those in need are looking at long-term solutions to address hunger beyond just handing out food. NPR's Pam Fessler visited one food bank in Arizona that thinks part of the solution is in the soil.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Early morning and the sun is already brutally hot in Tucson. The ground here looks hard and dry. Still, the small plot tended by Jamie Senik is surprisingly green. She says the soil here is good for growing, despite appearances.

JAMIE SENIK: I have tomatoes and basil, cucumbers and peppers and some beans.

FESSLER: She's working at Las Milpitas de Cottonwood, a community farm in one of the city's lower-income neighborhoods. It's run by the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, or more accurately, by its clients.

SENIK: They provided the plants, the seeds, the water. All I have to do is plant it and tend it.

FESSLER: Which, of course, is the hard part. But then Senik gets to reap the benefits, which she says are a big help for her and her mother, who live in a nearby trailer park. More than 50 families have garden plots here. Many, like Senik, are regular clients of the food bank.

ROBERT OJEDA: This is part of a growing movement within food banking.

FESSLER: Robert Ojeda oversees the program. He says as the number of people seeking emergency aid continues to grow, food banks have started thinking about what more they can do.

OJEDA: Thinking about long-term solutions to the problem of hunger and really getting at the core issues.

FESSLER: Like how to help clients become more self-sufficient. Besides starting this farm, the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona has helped about a thousand 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, also run by the food bank. They're also training people how to raise chickens and bees. And Bill Carnegie, the food bank's president and CEO, says they're helping local schoolchildren learn more about food and nutrition.

BILL CARNEGIE: 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.

FESSLER: Something Carnegie hopes to change. 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. Many here need jobs. They also have to be healthy enough to do them.

CARNEGIE: 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.

EFREN MARTINEZ: Oh yeah, these are really good to make zucchini bread with, these real big ones.

FESSLER: At the community farm, 22-year-old Efren Martinez finds two huge zucchinis lying under a plant. How long is that, do you think?

MARTINEZ: A good foot.

FESSLER: He's been gardening since high school and says there's nothing like eating something you've grown. Now, Martinez 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.

MARTINEZ: A space for where they feel they belong at. 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.

FESSLER: They've got only four takers so far, but Martinez hopes the idea will catch on. That's another goal of the food bank, to get people here more involved in the well-being of their community. They think that too will eventually yield something good. Pam Fessler, NPR News.

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