The Maricopa County Food Assistance Program addresses the issue of food insecurity in Maricopa County and assists thousands of food-insecure persons by providing resources to food pantries and agencies. Through this program, Maricopa County is granting $5 million in federal funds to the Arizona Food Bank Network (AFBN) for resources to support the operation of food banks, food pantries, and other agencies to that distribute food low-income persons in need of supplemental food. These measures not only provide immediate food to those in need, but also provide funding for critical capital purchases and other important enhancements that have allowed these agencies to better serve their clients through efficient operations that maintain the highest food health and safety standards..
Problem or Need for the Program
In addition to the many public health problems from the COVID-19 pandemic, demand for food assistance significantly increased in Maricopa County. Research conducted by Arizona State University showed that, in Arizona, food insecurity increased from 24% to 28% in the general population while households with children experienced an increase from 35% to 45%. During the pandemic, many people lost their jobs, had reduced income, increased expenses or otherwise experienced circumstances that cause food insecurity. Food banks have communicated on multiple occasions both to the Food Bank Network and Human Services Department that there is an increased demand during the pandemic. Due to restrictions with holding events and gatherings and other considerations related to COVID-19 health and safety protocols, food banks either lost the ability or experienced a severe reduction in their means to effectively raise funds and obtain grant funding to serve food insecure persons. By working with the Arizona Food Bank Network, Maricopa County learned that many food agencies were struggling to maintain operations and lacked the funds to obtain key equipment that had a direct impact on the ability to serve the community’s need. Equipment such as freezers, shelving and other storage capacity, and transportation were among the critical needs identified by food distribution organizations. The County viewed these needs as an opportunity to use federal funding from CARES Act and American Rescue Plan Act, Coronavirus State, and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds to address this need. More specifically, the County saw an opportunity to not only provide temporary assistance to these organizations but to improve the long-term sustainability of these organizations and the County’s food bank infrastructure adding more resiliency for how to better deal with future economic downturns and a rise in demand for food distribution to the public.
Description of the Program
The Maricopa County Food Assistance Program, through the Maricopa County Human Services Department, used a portion of its federal American Rescue Plan Act (State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds) funding to provide nearly $5 million to the largest coordinator of food assistance services in the County, the Arizona Food Bank Network. This organization was tasked with providing operation grants to food banks, food pantries, and other similar agencies, to support their operations that directly provide food to people in need and to purchase the equipment necessary to sustain and improve operations in the future such as upgraded/larger freezers, storage, and reliable, adequate transportation to add to the capacity to deliver meals to people without the ability to travel to distribution points
A key objective of using these funds is to ensure that the investment supported the capital and fixed costs of food agencies more effectively. By focusing funds on capital purchases versus primarily food purchases, the County found it could ensure the food banks had the capacity to deal with varying demand and supply more effectively and sustain the program's long-term success. As part of this project, the AFBN administers the grant making process to include reviewing grantee applications collecting key documentation to substantiate the application and any payments and conduct follows up with applicants as necessary. The AFBN then submits its recommendations to the County for final approval. Additionally, the AFBN works with all the grantees to obtain key programmatic information used to effectively monitor the grant funds use. Note: Funding recommendations and approvals may sometimes be less than the amount the applicant asked for depending on the assessment of the application.
To ensure the program operates effectively, Maricopa County receives regular detailed performance reports from the AFBN on grants disbursed and food provided to clients. Further, the County meets with AFBN as needed to address issues or requests from applicants and ensure the program is operating effectively. Further, each food agency that provided grant funding is responsible for tracking the use of grant funds and providing accurate information (which must supported with documentation) to the Network and the County of clients served and pounds of food provided to clients. The County uses all of this information to help ensure the funds are ensuring the long-term sustainability of these organizations and provide as much food as possible to the most people.
The $5 million in grant funds provided the means for food distribution organizations to to sustain their operations through difficult financial times and a period of extreme demand while at the same time enhance the sustainability of these agencies and the great region.
Responding to Economic Downturn
The COVID-19 Pandemic caused numerous lockdowns and social distancing measures affecting businesses and organizations throughout the State of Arizona, and Maricopa County was particularly hit hard by these circumstances because the County holds a majority of the population and businesses in the state. For many nonprofit providers, this caused a significant decrease in their ability to hold critical fundraising events which are key to allowing these organizations to fund their ongoing operations. Food banks and agencies suffered these same issues. Specifically, through operational grants, the County found it could not only assist some of its key partners, but could also help address a gap in human services to large numbers of vulnerable persons. Further, to help not only respond to the immediate economic downturn, but help prepare for future downturns, operational grants primarily provided long-term measures such as upgraded equipment, additional storage, and improved delivery vehicles that would allow food banks to better meet demand with similar staffing levels.
Advancing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
During the COVID-19 Pandemic a large number of persons, particularly minorities and low-income persons lost their jobs and/or their homes through the Pandemic and became food insecure. Although food insecure populations range in gender, ethnicity, race, and background, a majority of these food-insecure populations are minority populations who often struggle to obtain the necessary support to achieve self-sufficiency. For example, research from Arizona State University showed that as of 2021 food insecurity in Arizona for American Indian and Alaska Native households, African American households, and Hispanic households were 43%, 42%, and 39% respectively. Through these grants, not only is the County assisting a diverse population, but it is improving the equity of these individuals through these grants. Specifically, the grants help these populations obtain food needed to support themselves and their families which will further allow them to spend time, energy, and resources on obtaining other supports such as workforce assistance, housing, and childcare allowing for more long-term success. The increased demand for services among low-income persons in Arizona helps exemplify this aspect. For example, before the pandemic, food pantry utilization for low-income persons in Arizona increased from 25% to 29%. Assisting food banks/agencies through these funds is critical ensuring an inclusive community that looks after those who have been some of the hardest hit individuals in this pandemic.
The Cost of the Program
The entire cost of the program to the County is $5 million. This program is funded through the American Rescue Plan Act. Maricopa County provided the funds to the largest food bank coordinator in the County to subgrant funds to local food agencies. Approximately 10% of the funds will be used by AFBN to administer the grants, estimated to be two full-time employees (FTE). Since this is a grant program, various counties may have different numbers of food banks/agencies, coordinating organizations/coalitions, and different populations. However, simple grant distribution through flexible federal funding sources is something that can be cost-effectively implemented in most if not all counties.
Results/Success of the Program
To date more than $1.3 million in grants funding has been provided to 48 food agencies to help these organizations sustain operations long-term. These agencies' services as of December 31, 2021, provided 816,466 pounds of shelf-stable food to 12,367 food-insecure households. This food assistance has a ripple effect whereby the food assistance allows the households to use monies for other necessities and helps support them in obtaining other needed services such as housing, workforce assistance, and childcare that will improve their self-sufficiency.