Phoenix Didn’t Just Feed the Hungry. It Saved Farms and Restaurants.

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By April of this year, small farms in greater Phoenix were devastated. Restaurants and markets had scaled back to curb the spread of Covid-19, leaving the many growers in and around Phoenix’s 517-square-mile sprawl with few buyers for ripe spring crops.

“My business from March to April went down 90%,” said Paris Masek, president of Green on Purpose, a purveyor of local farm foods to restaurants and caterers.

At the same time, with whole sectors of the local economy all but shut down and spring tourism a nonstarter, unemployment applications were soaring and many residents needed help to make ends meet.

So when Phoenix received federal Cares Act relief, the City Council allocated $951,000 toward an ambitious goal: to help not only the jobless who needed food but also the farmers who needed buyers and the chefs and cooks who needed work. The resulting program, Feed Phoenix, has been a lifeline for local businesses and provided tens of thousands of meals between July and December. It’s been so successful that it has been extended into spring 2021.

Rosanne Albright, the environmental programs coordinator for the city, says that these funds could have simply been disbursed to food banks, but stakeholders hoped “to shore up our food system, to help people get back to work, to help our farmers, and to recognize grassroots organizations doing this work.”

Feed Phoenix, run by the nonprofit Local First Arizona, has done that — mending links in the chain of local food supply by connecting struggling farmers with imperiled restaurants and caterers. Local First buys produce from farms, then pays restaurants and caterers to prepare meals and deliver them to distribution points like food banks and refugee housing. The hungry can take them at no cost.

By December, Feed Phoenix had used its funding from the City of Phoenix to produce nearly 50,000 meals, including Thanksgiving dinners. Many have fed families in lower-income neighborhoods in south and west Phoenix at a time when tens of millions of Americans are out of work and when some 26 million Americans don’t have enough to eat. They have also helped keep 16 farms and all but a few of the 45 participating restaurants and caterers afloat. One grower, Crooked Sky Farms, sold 13,333 pounds of winter squash to the program, almost 15% of its fall planting.

Local First Arizona, which aids a coalition of 3,000 locally owned businesses, already had a network in place that could handle the program with few modifications. “The city could have awarded one very large contract to one very large company to just prepare all of those meals,” said Kimber Lanning, the nonprofit’s founder and executive director. “Instead, we decided to create a program to touch as many businesses as possible.”

Feed Phoenix is not the only program in the nation that has tried to avoid food waste and preserve jobs this year. In Newark, New Jersey, one plan aimed to create a pipeline from restaurants and other centers of food production to food pantries, rescuing perishables for people in need. However, the program hit some speed bumps. Private donors alsosupported restaurants in reopening their kitchens to make meals for Newark residents in need.

Like other local initiatives, the Feed Phoenix program can save only a small fraction of the companies that have imploded during the pandemic and can make only a small dent in a growing hunger crisis. For those who participate, though, it can be transformative.

Some farms, like TigerMountain Foundation, sell directly to Feed Phoenix. That could be straight from the soil, as it did in August. Or the farm can contribute whatever other consumers don’t buy. “If we have any produce that’s left over, I let Feed Phoenix know right after the farmers’ market,” says Katelyn Prinzo, agribusiness manager at TigerMountain.

Recently, Melissa Wright, special events coordinator at Local First, brought TigerMountain’s market surplus to Los Compadres Mexican Food, a program restaurant. “I know you’re doing 400 meals,” she recalls asking the restaurant, “but do you want a random mix of 3 pounds of this, 4 pounds of mushrooms, 5 pounds of peppers?”

Some farms provide food to Feed Phoenix through Masek of Green on Purpose. “I contacted all the chefs,” he says. “And then I took their orders and I went to the different farms and filled the orders, then I delivered them to the chefs.” He works with nine farms in the program, including traditional soil-based operations as well as growers using techniques like hydroponics and aeroponics, some in urban warehouses.

Next come the chefs, like Maria Parra Cano of Sana Sana Foods. On a chilly morning in early December, she cooked 100 meals for Harvest Compassion Center, a food bank in West Phoenix. Parra Cano prepared burritos, with wild rice, quinoa, pinto beans, heirloom tomatoes and sunflower shoots in tortillas made from ancient grains. Since July, she has participated in Feed Phoenix three to five times a month. “We actually had to shut down all our operations due to the pandemic,” she says. “This program has helped us feed our community, but in my commercial kitchen … we activated again through this grant.”

Feed Phoenix disburses meals through nearly 30 distribution points. The program coordinates deliveries to three to eight distribution centers a day, with 50 to 500 meals available at each, depending on the capacity of the restaurant or caterer and the distribution center.

Through the program, Nicolee Thompson, executive director of Harvest Compassion Center, has added ready-to-eat food to the center’s canned and boxed offerings. “They’re using fresh ingredients,” she says of Feed Phoenix’s chefs and caterers. “They’re planning out menus five days in advance.”

Masek says the program helped him rebuild the 90% of his business he lost — “and then some.”

Feed Phoenix was expected to wind down at the end of this year, when its share of Phoenix’s Cares Act funding ran out. But in early December — with the pandemic on an upswing, unemployment numbers still soaring, and restaurants and caterers still desperate — officials changed course. The city council is devoting an additional $350,000 from its Cares Act funding. Albright, the city coordinator, says that will extend Feed Phoenix through the spring.

Even when the program ends, participants say its effect will persist, through the new distribution channels and business partnerships it has forged. Several of Masek’s Feed Phoenix farmers have now worked with him outside the program. Harvest Compassion Center now has chefs from Feed Phoenix calling directly, offering to drop off meals.

“What is going to be left behind is a stronger community food network,” says Albright. “Restaurants realize the value and excellent product that can be delivered by our farmers, and they want to continue those connections.”

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