Phoenix food banks are facing new challenges this fall as COVID-19 forces more families to seek food aid.

More people have turned to food assistance programs because of COVID-19’s impact on unemployment. Food bank officials said many of these people have never needed food assistance before. All the food banks are seeing a jump in the numbers of people. 

St. Mary’s Food Bank, based in Phoenix, reports serving 20% to 25% more families than at this time last year, said Jerry Brown, the food bank’s communications director.

United Food Bank in Mesa is also feeding 2,000 families weekly compared with 500 last year, according to Tyson Nansel, director of external affairs at United Food Bank.

Nationally, the needs are similar. Feeding America, the country’s largest food pantry network, reported that 98% of food banks have faced an increase in demand for food assistance since the beginning of March. 

Last spring, “around 55% of the folks that showed up to the food bank said, ‘I’ve never done this before,’” said Angie Rodgers, president and CEO of the Arizona Food Bank Network.

More families in need is just one of the challenges food banks are contending with this fall. 

Food banks rely on volunteers and many are older people who feared catching the virus, food pantry officials say. Only recently have small numbers of volunteers began to return.

“The volunteers have come back in dribs and drabs,” Brown said. “I would say back to about 35% to 40% of what we normally get. But it’s almost all small groups.”

Work conferences, conventions, and charity events often supply large groups of volunteers during normal times, according to Brown. But because businesses are working from home and public events have been cancelled, large groups are not coming anymore to help distribute food. 

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that unemployment rates dropped during the months of August and September, coming down from 11% to 6.3%. But according to food pantries, the number of people receiving food assistance is still higher than normal. If the trend continues volunteers will become more crucial.

Boxes ready for pick-up.

Since last spring, St. Mary’s set up a mobile drive-through pantry so families can stay in their vehicles, physically distanced, and still receive food.  

“We’ll have 800 folks go through the lines today,” Brown said. “800 families drive through and almost all of those will be served by the Arizona National Guard.”

Since last March, guard members have assisted food banks dealing with the shortage of volunteers and the increase in families needing food, Rodgers said. However, the emergency public health declaration that allows food banks to use guard members for assistance ends in December. 

Brown said that when the pandemic began in February, food banks were in good shape with the amount of food they had stocked.

“If there was a good time for a pandemic to hit, February would be it,” Brown said. Food banks receive most of their donations during the holidays and that food contributes to the following year. 

If a second wave of COVID-19 hits in October or November, Brown said he’s worried food pantries won’t be in the same position. 

Rodgers said she feels good about the amount of food for this fall because federal government food assistance programs are keeping food pantries stocked.

“We have a steady supply of federal commodities that have been committed by the USDA,” Rodgers said.

She also is hoping for the community’s participation.  

“The generosity of individuals during the holiday is usually high, so hopefully they will come and volunteer,” Rodgers said.

Since the holidays are the busiest time of the year for food banks, staff are carefully watching the progress of the pandemic. 

“We’re watching the media cycle a lot,” Nansel said. Staying informed about unemployment and information about the pandemic is crucial in predicting the number of families that may show up for food boxes. 

Food bank officials say to keep volunteers safe they are providing them with masks and gloves and will require them to stay 6 feet apart. 

“I would like to encourage folks that have volunteered at the food bank before that are worried … that we’ve worked very hard to make it safe,” Brown said.

Food pantries are urging anyone who wants to volunteer to call 602-242-FOOD. Or visit or to donate money.

Nansel pointed out “every dollar helps deliver five meals.”