The Arizona National Guard has stepped up its efforts to bolster the supply of food.
On March 26, a few dozen soldiers packed boxes at food banks seeing a surge in demand and others prepared to move goods between warehouses and grocery stores.
The food bank missions in Mesa and Tucson were among the first since Gov. Doug Ducey activated the Guard in response to the coronavirus outbreak. They come as state health officials said there is now widespread community spread of the virus from person to person.
For now, the Guard has about 750 members activated, and its mission is limited to assisting grocery stores and food banks. But Ducey said he may need to activate as many as 5,500 guardsmen for missions such as building hospitals, organizing a medical corps or assisting law enforcement.
At United Food Bank in Mesa, about two dozen soldiers wearing latex gloves worked alongside volunteers from a nearby high school to pack more than 1,000 bags of food in less than an hour. They walked by pallets of food, grabbing green beans, applesauce, kidney beans, peas, peanut butter, macaroni and cheese, cream of mushroom soup and rice for each bag.
The food was distributed through drive-up service at the Mesa Convention Center March 27.
On March 20, United Food Bank served 1,200 families, more than double the typical demand of 500. It’s expecting more, said Dave Richins, president and CEO. At the same time, many volunteers have canceled their shifts.
“The ability for me to actually come and help and do things like this is — not to sound too cliche — but what I’m meant to do. This is what I see as my purpose,” said Staff Sgt. Nicholas Muños, 29, a Northern Arizona University student who joined the National Guard after finishing a nine-year active duty stint with the Army.
Muños, originally from Safford in eastern Arizona, said juggling his online schooling with his Guard activation has made for long days. But his professors have been understanding.
Guardsmen have served earlier missions at St. Mary’s Food Bank in Phoenix.
The Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona is seeing double the demand for food that it saw at this time last year, said Norma Cable, a spokeswoman. About 30 guardsmen helped pack bags at a Tucson warehouse March 26.
“We do have food available, it’s just a question of getting it into that bag and getting it assembled and getting it out,” Cable said. “That’s the tricky part.”
Arizona’s largest homeless shelter says it has received a grant of $50,000 from the Arizona Lottery to keep operating during the pandemic, as nonprofits worry that it is only a matter of time before the virus explodes among the thousands of people living on the streets in the Phoenix metropolitan area.
Lisa Glow, who oversees Central Arizona Shelter Services in downtown Phoenix, said the money comes at a critical time when providers need to spend more for cleaning and providing educational materials aimed at keeping homeless people safe.
The shelter houses 470, but the population has slowly dropped to 370 people over the last 10 days so sufficient social distancing can be guaranteed between beds, Glow said.
In other actions, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office announced the suspension of work furlough and work release programs to prevent inmates from leaving and re-entering the jail system daily.