Data Show Hunger Still Crippling Yuma County

Mike Ivers is upset. And he wants everyone else to be upset.

The latest statistics on food insecurity in Yuma County show that there’s still a lot of work to be done in the war against hunger.

The newly released report “Map the Meal Gap” from Feeding America indicates 24.3 percent of Yuma County residents lived with food insecurity in 2012.

That’s 47,740 people who lacked access to or the ability to afford enough food to feed their households.

The numbers for children were even more alarming. Forty percent of the county’s children were considered food insecure.

“As you can see, we have a ton of work to do,” said Ivers, president and CEO of the Yuma Community Food Bank.

“I’m real upset. That’s more than double what we’re serving every month,” he said.

So he wonders, where are the rest getting their food?

“It bothers me, the unmet need,” he noted.

What would it take to take care of all the county residents considered food insecure? According to Ivers, $8.9 million.

The newly released data shows almost 1 in 5 Arizonans, or 1.17 million people, struggled with food insecurity in 2012.

More alarmingly, more than 1 in 4 Arizona children (28.2 percent – an estimated 456,760) suffered from food insecurity during that same time period.

These numbers rank Arizona as the third worst in the nation in child food insecurity.

Nationwide, the food insecurity rate was 15.9 percent, which is 12 percent lower than Arizona’s rate, and 21.6 percent for children, which is 31 percent lower.

However, those figures almost look good compared to that of Yuma County, Ivers noted.

Yuma County ranked the second worst in the state in food insecurity.

“How can we live with that? How can every elected official, every citizen not get upset? How can people not be up in arms about this?” Ivers asked.

That’s not to say that there hasn’t been improvement. The previous data showed 27.3 percent of county residents lived with food insecurity in 2011.

The only good thing about the data is that maybe more people will become aware of the hunger problem in Yuma County, Ivers said.

“There are still a lot of people, not through any fault of their own, that are not aware of it,” he said.

Some still dare to say there isn’t a problem, according to Ivers.

“It does anger me that people think we don’t have a problem. If they think we don’t have a problem, they’re never been here.”

It seems like a losing battle, but Ivers is determined to keep on fighting. He will not surrender.

“That’s why it’s a war on hunger,” he said.

Still, he laments that the food bank can only do so much.

Families can only go to the food bank once a month. Not every day, not every week.

And what they get is not enough to fill a refrigerator.

Ivers showed a recent visitor a box ready for a family of four. It contained three packages of pasta, one can of vegetable soup, two cans of vegetables, eight energy bars, one package of dried cranberries, one bag of beans, two beverage bottles, tomatoes and bread.

Another box ready for a family of three or less had cereal, a bag of beans, one package pasta, one can of soup, once can of vegetables and one beverage.

“This is supposed to last a month. Give me a break!” Ivers exclaimed.

The food bank also serves more than 5,000 veterans a year.

“That’s not acceptable,” he said.

In October, he recalled, a sickly, frail woman in her 80s walked into the food bank. When staff asked for her identification, she pulled out a card that identified her as a retired U.S. Air Force veteran.

A staff member wondered, “How did this veteran fall through the cracks and perhaps go hungry?”

The food bank’s backpacks program serves 1,300 children, with First Things First funding children ages 0 to 5. The backpacks contain enough foods and snacks to help children get through the weekends.

Recent backpacks were filled with peanut butter crackers, apple sauce, cereal, macaroni and cheese, energy bars and a fruit drink.

Families with infants also get formula – if it’s available.

“We’re always running out,” Ivers noted.

A peek into the freezer revealed another shortage. The almost empty freezer held chicken, the only protein that would be available to families this past week.

Another freezer contained ice cream. Ivers is happy that families can get a treat, sometimes the only treats they get.

However, some people have criticized the food bank for giving desserts to families.

Critics might not know that all those items have expired. Actually, the majority of packaged foods in the food bank are past the “best by” date. Although they’re still edible, groceries stores will not sell them and people won’t buy them.

“It’s food nobody wants,” Ivers noted. “They were going into the garbage. Would you rather it go into the trash?”

Aside from the grocery stores, Ivers was quick to express appreciation to the “generous” farmers in Yuma who routinely donate millions of pounds of citrus and produce.

That generosity extends to residents who pick fruit from their own yards and donate it to the food bank.

In addition, every high school in the community is involved in the backpacks program and community members and organizations are almost constantly holding food drives.

“The community is great, but the bottom line is we need more,” Ivers said.

Accordingly, once the produce season dries out, the food bank will put out an SOS plea with a Stock our Shelves Food Drive and well as kick off a capital campaign to raise money.

In the past, these cries for help have resulted in “incredible support” from the community.

It’s what keeps Ivers from giving up.

“The people who respond, that’s what keeps me up. I’ve never lived in a community as generous as this one,” he said.