May 2013

An In-Depth Look at Hunger in Northern Arizona

Hunger Hiding in the White Mountains
White Mountain Catholic Charities in Pinetop-Lakeside.

White Mountain Catholic Charities in Pinetop-Lakeside.

by Erika Clemens

After a three and a half hour drive a small group of us from United Food Bank arrive in Pinetop-Lakeside, Navajo Country, where we came to visit some of our partner agencies. Driving through this quaint and picturesque town, it is difficult for us to imagine how we could have seven agencies here.  The main road is dotted with wood cabins holding restaurants, shops, and hardware stores. Beautiful open fields decorated by a layer of snow, pine trees and cabins suddenly appear alongside us. However, hiding in the forest and behind this seemingly perfect town is a serious need. 

Pinetop-Lakeside is a small vacation destination in the White Mountains, made up of only 4,282 permanent residents and 15,000-20,000 seasonal residents, according to the town’s economic development and police departments. Cooler temperatures, beautiful scenery and nearby ski resorts attract visitors from the Valley and beyond. While more affluent individuals may come to stay during the peak seasons, the per capita income is only $22,419. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that the federal poverty threshold is $23,681 for a family of four. Once we start talking to directors of our agencies, becomes apparent that these low incomes are fueling the need in the community.

Pantry at The Love Kitchen.

Pantry at The Love Kitchen.

One of our partner agencies, The Love Kitchen, provides an average of 429 food boxes and 1,666 meals each month. Typically a household receives one or two food boxes depending on the number of people and availability. Director, Lynn Lewis, notes that four people per household is no long the average, but the new minimum. “I’m seeing grandparents raising grandkids, so you’re seeing five to nine,” she says. Along with the larger families, comes an increase in expenses according to Lewis. She explains that not only are a majority of the people faced with medical bills, but they are also having to pay for their children and/or grandchildren’s medical expenses. On top of that many have lost their jobs making it even more difficult to pay for these expenses. For the seniors Lewis says, “that’s wiped out their retirement, I see a lot of that.”

Nelson French, Director of White Mountain Catholic Charities, also witnesses many of the same struggles while working at their two locations. Each month, their Running Bear location in town serves an average of 459 households their second location on the nearby Whiteriver Apache Reservation serves about 158 households, usually with four to six people per household. French also cites that many elderly residents are caring for their grandchildren, putting a strain on their already limited financial resources. “The seniors are the ones who are really hurting up here in this whole area… back just a couple of years they could pay their utility bills and rents… now we’re having to turn people away… we just don’t have that anymore and the need is still there,” he declares. At their Whiteriver location on the reservation, he says many elders in the tribe are trying to live on only $600 to $800 per month, forcing them to make tough decisions. The mental battle over paying for heat versus medicine leaves many looking despaired with their heads hung down as French describes. “There’s so much need up here,” he says.

Nelson French, Director of White Mountain Catholic Charities.

Nelson French, Director of White Mountain Catholic Charities.

Other contributing factors to the need for food assistance are limited job resources and insufficient wages according to both Lewis and French. Due to the fact that Pinetop-Lakeside is a vacation destination for many part time residents and visitors, many of the jobs are only seasonal according to French. Winter allows for jobs at nearby ski lodges, but once the season ends he says employment drops by half at least. In the summer, Lewis says people use up their winter earnings quickly and then “have nothing to carry them through the winter… that would be hard for anyone.” The forest industry used to be another main job source, but French explains that has taken a hit with the economy. This job scarcity forces many to find work 20 to 30 minutes away and often they are making low wages.  “They’re not making the wages a lot of the cities are used to making. They’re making minimum wage and supporting multiple households,” says Lewis. These various challenges force hundreds of households to visit local food pantries like The Love Kitchen.

In addition to struggling households, Lewis also reports that her food pantry and kitchen serves a local homeless population. For those of us from the Valley, who are used to the infamously hot summers and mild winters, this fact is slightly jarring. During our visit, we all are constantly fixated on the 28 to 30 degree temperatures, icicles hanging from roofs and the snow blanketing the ground. We are in disbelief when we find that water we had spilt in our cup holder the night before is now a chunk of ice. It is so difficult to imagine how homeless individuals could survive these harsh winters in the White Mountains. “We do have a homeless population and it’s rising,” Lewis informs us. She finds that some are locals while others come from other areas, not expecting the winters to be as challenging as they are. According to Lewis, these individuals sleep behind a nearby Safeway or camp at Scott’s Reservoir, keeping them hidden just like the overall need in the town.

While Lewis and French both see a concerning amount of regulars at their pantries and those who get trapped in the cycle of hunger and poverty, they do see a solution. “Education is a big key to getting out of poverty,” declares French. Lewis too cites education as vital to moving people forward, but argues that there are some flaws with its current status in town. “I don’t think that education is a priority anymore for our community. I think a lot of them are falling through the cracks,” she says. Both seem slightly frustrated by these challenges in their community, but continue to work week in and week out to help those in need. In those moments when he is overwhelmed by the need and questions, “Why am I doing this?” French remembers their pantries are providing a short term solution and achieving small victories. “In the end result you’ve helped someone… If nothing else there is someone that sincerely cares who can do something. We can’t get your house out of foreclosure, but we can give you food and blankets for that day,” he concludes. While these acts may seem small, they come as a great comfort to those who are struggling during these uncertain times.

These achievements are what drive United Food Bank and the rest of our network and continue to encourage us to combat hunger. We are incredibly grateful for our partners like The Love Kitchen and White Mountain Catholic Charities that help us meet the need in these northern communities. To learn about more of our agencies in northern Arizona go to

View the photo gallery here.

UFB Celebrates 30 Years
This month United Food Bank is celebrating 30 years of fighting hunger in the greater East Valley and Eastern Arizona! Over the years, we have grown significantly in every way from the size of our warehouse and staff, to our number of programs, to the amount of food we distribute. During our first fiscal year, we distributed 536,250 lbs. of food (1,224 meals every day). In the 2011/2012 fiscal year, we distributed 19,801,662 lbs. of food (more than 45,200 meals daily)! We could not be where we are today without the generosity of our many supporters, who over the years have enabled us to grow and better meet the need in our community. Together, we will continue on our mission to provide those in our community with access to nutritious food.  
Stamp Out Hunger
The NALC’ 21st Stamp Out Hunger food drive is coming up! They’re working again this year to meet the growing need for food assistance, with 50 mil. Americans living in food insecure households. On May 11th, leave non-perishable food donations in a bag by your mailbox, and letter carriers will deliver it to your local food bank (that’s us)! More information…
Get your Hunger Relief License Plate
Support Arizona food banks that together serve all 15 counties by purchasing the “Ending Hunger One Plate at a Time” specialty license plate! The cost is $25 annually, $17 of which goes to the state’s food banks. Get your Hunger Relief license plate today by visiting or order your plate at any MVD or Authorized Third Party office.