Arizona Food Bank Network addresses food security while supporting local farmers

By: Kaley Necessary, ASU Sustainable Food Systems graduate student.

Note: Angie Rodgers has now transitioned into a position with the Arizona Dept. of Economic Security, and is no longer CEO of AzFBN. The team at AzFBN is eternally grateful for her leadership and is incredibly excited for the continued support of its Friends of the Farm Program through the recently allocated Local Food Purchase Assistance Cooperative Agreement Program (LFPA).

As part of a week-long Arizona Food and Farm Immersive Course, my fellow ASU Sustainable Food Systems classmates and I heard from various speakers representing different components of Arizona’s local food system. Joined by ASU Swette Center faculty and staff, one evening, my cohort gathered for a reception and heard from Arizona Food Bank Network’s (AzFBN) President and Chief Executive Officer, Angie Rodgers.

Raised by her mother, who was passionate about social justice issues, and her engineer father, Rodgers shared that her parents influenced the way she cares so deeply about the systems within which we live. AzFBN is a network comprised of 5 regional food banks and around 1,000 partner agencies, including food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters for the unhoused, and after-school programs. Arizona’s 5 regional food banks include St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance, United Food Bank, Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, HonorHealth Desert Mission Food Bank, and Yuma Community Food Bank. Agencies participating in this network are committed to addressing hunger issues for those who are food insecure in Arizona.

During the reception, Rodgers simplified the economics of the emergency food system by explaining that there is an imbalance in the number of people who need food and the amount of healthy food that is accessible to those who need it most. Simply put, hunger is more of a logistics problem than a production problem. She says hunger, an issue rooted in economic wealth disparity, could be addressed with better nutrition policies and by supporting local growers in Arizona.

Hunger in Arizona: Emergency Food Assistance

Food banks and pantries play an important role in providing food for people across the state. Food banks can distribute food directly to participants and/or distribute food to partner agencies like food pantries or food box distribution sites. Food banks receive food items through donations, salvage food items, and purchase surplus commodities through state and federal government agencies.

According to Rodgers, one out of nine people in Arizona experience food insecurity, meaning they sometimes or regularly don’t have access to food. Individuals can experience barriers to accessing food including insufficient funds due to a medical emergency, high childcare costs, limited affordable housing, systemic racism, and inequity experienced by socially disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Supporting Local Farmers

In addition to distributing food across the state, AzFBN prioritizes supporting local farmers and advocating for food system policies that help Arizonans have better access to healthy food. The network recently launched the Friends of the Farm program. This program provides a way for small Arizona farmers to grow food for those experiencing hunger. The program invests in local fruit, vegetable, and animal protein production systems by purchasing food from farmers as it’s grown and partnering with farmers to create purchase agreements before the growing season. Through this program, farmers can either deliver their products to AzFBN partner agencies, or the network can pick up the produce from farmers. This procurement system eliminates the barriers some farmers experience when accessing similar markets like cold storage and transportation.

Angie Rodgers with Kaley Necessary, blog author.

Arizona was recently awarded USDA funding to support local food through the Local Food Purchase Assistance Cooperative Agreement Program (LFPA). Provided by the United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Marketing Service, this funding will support Arizona’s local food system by allowing the Arizona Food Bank Network to purchase local foods through the Friends of the Farm program and create a market for small and socially disadvantaged farmers. AzFBN collaborated with other state hunger organizations to design a program to purchase healthy food at market price to further support small growers and build a more robust local food system. Rodgers explained how LFPA funds will bolster rural Arizona economies and eliminate barriers that BIPOC and indigenous growers may face when entering the market. In addition to purchasing food from producers, the Arizona Food Bank Network is working to salvage 50 million pounds of produce coming from Mexico. The food is stored in warehouses in Rio Rico, Ariz., and used in food box distributions across the state.

The Arizona Food Bank Network serves as a vital resource for Arizona families, providing food for those who are food insecure. Rodgers ended her presentation at the reception with a question to challenge my cohort of future food systems policy leaders. She invited us to consider, “How do you envision transforming a food system to support local food?”

This blog is part of a series from the December 2022 Arizona immersive component of the MS in Sustainable Food Systems Program. Students toured the state, meeting with farmers, ranchers, entrepreneurs, government staff, and non-profit leaders.