Shaun Alexander hands out Thanksgiving turkeys provided by the Eastern Santa Cruz Community Food Bank on Nov. 18 in Patagonia. 132 turkeys were distributed in less than an hour at the event. Photo by Robert Gay

Since the start of COVID, Patagonia has been fortunate to be home to several nonprofit organizations that focus on meeting people’s food needs. Over the past several months the Southeastern Santa Cruz County Community Food Bank, Patagonia Youth Enrichment Center, and the Senior Citizens of Patagonia, have been working to ensure that local families have enough food at a time when that need seems to have risen dramatically.

Jim Staudacher, organizer of the Eastern Santa Cruz County Community Food Bank, told the PRT, “Our working families and seniors are facing the same tough times being experienced by people across the country during this pandemic.” Local demand for food assistance spiked in the spring of 2020, when many lost jobs and no federal assistance had yet come through. Then the need seemed to subside for a bit. Food Bank staff expected the need to increase again this summer, but it was October when the number requiring food assistance rose suddenly from 50 to 150 families. “It seems people who make ends meet during good times have exhausted COVID relief and unemployment benefits. There are even some families who have donated to the Food Bank in the past now needing food boxes themselves,” Staudacher explained.

In partnership with the PPEP Inc. Foundation (see PPEP article, page 4), the Food Bank has been distributing 150 food boxes weekly for the past few months in addition to their usual food distributions. Each box weighs about 35 pounds and contains enough food for a family of four for a week, including dry and canned goods, dairy, protein, and fresh fruits and vegetables. Two more deliveries  are scheduled for December 10 and 24 in Patagonia, subject to change due to the holidays. 

Seniors and residents with disabilities served by the Senior Citizens of Patagonia, Inc. (SCP) have also benefitted from the food boxes being given each week. SCP Secretary Chuck Kelly has also seen a 30% increase in the number of senior citizens picking up lunches at the Senior Center each weekday.

“We’ve had around 60 seniors in our lunch program, up from around 40 before COVID,” he said. “Lunch is the main meal of the day for many of the folks who come, and the food boxes people can receive now really help out.” The Senior Center has continued providing its other services during COVID times, including transportation and vouchers for dental care.

Seven-year-old Cole Keith carries one of the 100 boxes of food delivered by the National Guard for distribution outside the Sonoita Post Office on Nov. 20. Several volunteers handed out boxes at the event organized by SCC Supervisor Bruce Bracker. The event started at 9:00a.m and all boxes had been distributed by 10:30a.m. Photo by Mary Moran

The local Food Bank reached out to Patagonia Youth Enrichment Center Director Anna Coleman who connected them with families they didn’t know.  She said it was a good transition. “The Youth Center kids were already digging into healthy eating and cooking when COVID happened. They had been making and sharing meals together for the past year, which shifted to taking meal kits home to show off their new skills to their families. The food boxes have helped out even more.” 

Local pastors have also helped widen the circle in the Sonoita/Elgin area.  According to Staudacher, Pastor Rick Rinde at Sonoita Hills Community Church, and Pastor Gardenia Moffett at Sonoita Vine Church, have been extremely helpful. “They have put in tremendous energy, organizing drivers to deliver boxes to the outlying areas of the eastern County.”

Fresh produce boxes are also available, that effort being coordinated between Santa Cruz County, the National Guard and the Community Food Bank. These boxes are delivered every Friday to the Gazebo at Town Park. Information is available on the Patagonia Schools Facebook page.

The Eastern Santa Cruz County Community Food Bank has resumed distributing fresh vegetables, as well, at the Senior Center in Patagonia. These vegetables will be available every Monday from 10:30a.m. to 11:30 a.m. This distribution will continue weekly into spring, 2021. 

Santa’s Helpers of Sonoita, founded more than 30 years ago by Margaret Carmichael and Pete Bidegain, raises funds and organizes food and toy drives under the direction of Martha Green, of Elgin, to provide Christmas dinners and presents to people in the area who could use a little extra help during the holidays. 

Due to COVID concerns, Santa’s Helpers will not be distributing Christmas dinner boxes and canned goods this year. Instead they will be handing out gift certificates for meals to residents in Patagonia and Sonoita. Donations to Santa’s Helpers can be made at the National Bank of Arizona in Sonoita SCP President Irene Smith, believes that, with everyone working together, most local people now have enough to get by. “When we hear about someone who needs financial or food help, we look into it right away. We are paying attention,”she said.

Several organizations and individuals contribute to this effort, from statewide foundations and governmental agencies to area residents. Kelly said, “I currently have a list of seven or eight organizations offering grants that I plan to apply for. It is an ongoing effort.”

Coleman senses an evolution in thinking among residents since the onset of COVID. “This is the first time these organizations have come together in this way. I think people are realizing that we are all vulnerable and that what we really need is not what we used to think was important. From kids to adults, people are wondering how to help.” All those involved appreciate the generosity of the community. 

Staudacher said, “We don’t do a lot of fundraising, but our stalwarts, people who feel they’re doing well enough to share, have continued and even increased their giving. A local woman is making masks for friends and directing them to donate to us in lieu of payment. A Phoenix man called out of the blue and donated several hundred dollars because he wanted to help a rural food bank.” Donations to the cause may be made through the various organizations’ Facebook pages and websites.  

Anyone who needs assistance, or knows of someone who does, can check the Food Bank’s and Youth Center’s Facebook pages, or visit the Senior Citizens’ website for information about the weekday lunches. Or tell a friend. In a small community like ours, that just might be enough.