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For the love of helping: Flagstaff Family Food Center in search of volunteers

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Some are throwing together ham and cheese sandwiches. Others are filling containers with stew and mixed vegetables. Energy is high as hungry customers make a line at the pickup window.

But this isn’t a restaurant. It’s the Flagstaff Family Food Center, Food Bank and Kitchen, and the people hustling about are mostly volunteers. It’s a daily routine that requires a small army of volunteers to serve people in need of a meal -- especially during a pandemic, especially during the holiday season.

Without a steady stream of volunteers, the food center would struggle to address hunger in the community, and volunteers are needed now more than ever.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Arizona National Guard has generously stepped in to help the food center, said Monica Foos, executive director. But their mission is over; they are being deployed elsewhere.

Flagstaff Family Food Center Looking for Volunteers

Jason Kordosky shows some of the items included in the food boxes at the Flagstaff Family Food Center Friday morning that are distributed to those in need. The center is looking for more volunteers as the National Guard will be leaving at the end of November.

“We want to thank the National Guard for 19 months of service to our community,” Foos said. “We always knew they were leaving, and now’s the time.”

To fill the gap, the food center, now in its 30th year of serving the Flagstaff community, will need on average about 50 volunteers a day, seven days a week, said Lina Wallen, a member of the food center board.

“We always have an increase in the holiday season,” Wallen said. “A jump in need means we need a jump in volunteers.”

And the need is significant, said J.B. DeWitt, director of development.

In 2018, prior to the pandemic, the food center distributed about 3.8 million pounds of food in the community. In 2020, during the pandemic, that number rose to 5 million pounds, and in 2021, that number is expected to reach 7 million pounds. In the past year, the food center has served about 2,300 people a day, and for each dollar donated to the food center, it creates about five meals to help the hungry.

DeWitt added that in a single day, the record was giving food boxes to 271 families. But the center broke that record on Nov. 17, distributing 350 food boxes -- which equates to about a food box per family every 41 seconds.

“We served more households in a single day than ever before,” said Jason Kordosky, volunteer coordinator at FFFC. “It feels good to know we can help so many, but it also shows that there are more households in need."

Flagstaff Family Food Center Looking for Volunteers

A car waits in line outside of the Flagstaff Family Food Center Friday morning. The center is looking for more volunteers.

Kordosky attributes increased demand to inflated prices for household goods. As of October, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a 6.2% increase in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) for all items over the past 12 months. For comparison, 2020 saw a CPI increase by 1.4%, and 2019 saw an increase of 2.3%. Within these calculations, costs of food are estimated to have increased by about 5.4%.

The food center not only serves hot meals at its location in Sunnyside, it also provides hot meals to the city’s homeless shelter, offers a backdoor lunch program, a food box program, a food rescue program, a food for farms program, delivers to anyone in need, supplies mobile pantries across the community and even has a children’s literacy program. About 60% of the food center’s income comes from individual donations from the community.

“I’ve been really impressed by the community support,” Kordosky said, adding that with the National Guard leaving, a big gap in the food center meeting the increased need needs to be filled quickly, especially during the holidays.

Foos added: “I’m hoping that now, during the holidays, people will join us.”

The commitment can be as little as a few hours each month. Every little bit helps, even temporary help.

“But we hope they stay with us,” Foos said.

Marian Armstrong, a local realtor, was at the center helping make a load of sandwiches for the lunch program. She and fellow volunteer Courtland Kaye, a microbiology major at Northern Arizona University, had already burned through about 100 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and were pumping out ham and cheese sandwiches.

“The simplest way to give a helping hand is to provide food,” Armstrong said. “Flagstaff is my home.”

She added that she feels the need to help those in need when she can. She comes in for a couple hours once a month. She also has helped out at the food center warehouse preparing food boxes for needy families.

“This is not a huge commitment of time ... and I feel energized when I’m here,” she said. “It serves a larger need than some people realize.”

Kaye said he learned about the food center when a fellow college student asked him to drive to the warehouse so he could get a food box.

“It was very eye-opening,” Kaye said, adding that he immediately decided to volunteer at the food center.

“It’s fulfilling,” Kaye said. “You feel better having spent your time this way -- seeing people actually helped by something you do.”

Stephanie Lo Verde, a dental hygiene student at NAU, recently began volunteering, and she and Lydia Hoffner, a Flagstaff High School junior, staffed the Reading Room at the center. In a 12-month period, the food center sent 3,921 books home with children through the Reading Room.

FFFC4

Volunteers Stephanie Lo Verde, right, and Lydia Hoffner staff the Reading Room at the Flagstaff Family Food Center.

“Helping others, in general, is rewarding,” Lo Verde said. “And if you have the ability to help, why not? It can make a difference right now, and that’s important. Every moment in life is a gift, and if you have an opportunity to help, it’s like giving a gift and giving to yourself, too.”

Hoffner, who has volunteered in various ways since she was in the Girl Scouts and in middle school, said, “After the quarantine was over, I wanted to get back into helping. I think it’s good to be contributing, however much, to make Flagstaff a better place.”

She added: “However much you can help, that will make a difference in somebody else’s life.”

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