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St. Mary’s Food Bank programs aim to address statewide food insecurity, offers 6,000 meals daily to Arizona families

Trips to the local grocery store are something Ashley Grabb will never forget. When she was only 8 years old, she and her mom pushed a grocery cart through the dim aisles, hopelessly walking past the quality items they couldn't afford. 

The cashier's request to exchange their large block of cheese for a smaller one to accommodate their food stamps left her feeling embarrassed. 

“I remember at certain times we didn’t have the money to buy sweet treats, my mom would have me swap an item out for Honey Nut Cheerios or get apples so I could feel like I was eating dessert,” Grabb said. 

Moments like these were the catalyst for her role as a social worker. Now an adult, Grabb works as a Senior Health Educator in Maricopa County, dedicated to spreading awareness about health and well-being. Driven by her firsthand experiences with food insecurity, she is committed to combating this issue and ensuring food is accessible to all. 

Food insecurity affects 1 in 5 children who live in Maricopa County, according to The Maricopa County Food Systems Coalition. Funded through United States Department of Agriculture dollars, St. Mary’s Food Bank operates programs aimed at addressing food insecurity.

Kids Cafe, one of the programs, provides warm, fresh, home-cooked food throughout Phoenix and nine Arizona counties offering over 6,000 meals daily, including 1,000 hot meals at more than 140 locations, as reported by St. Mary's Food Bank.

Seanna Perry, the Development Specialist at St. Mary's Food Bank, said that government services often fall short, particularly during current rates of inflation. Consequently, St. Mary’s provides enough food to sustain individuals for three to four days. 

“We're pretty much just like a band aid because the government services sometimes don’t go very far,” Perry said.

In addition to the Kids Cafe, there is the Backpack Program, specifically created to support families during the weekends. It is a program that gives families backpacks filled with non-perishable items, like canned fruits and vegetables, as well as ready-to-eat meals, such as mac and cheese and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. 

According to St. Mary's Food Bank, over 100 schools and community centers distribute approximately 7,000 backpacks each week to families in need throughout the state.

The work of food banks and health educators often overlap, as the goal of Maricopa County's Health Educators office is to not only feed but to educate people about food and food insecurity. 

Senior Food Systems Health Educator Daniella Silva earned her degree in nutrition and dietetics. She said her passion for helping her community began with her own studies on community nutrition.

Silva is a health educator for schools and community centers, where she educates on active living and nutrition through promotion of food pantries in the area. She said her work is more than just a job: it's a fulfilling vocation that allows her to make a tangible difference in the lives of families and children.

Silva looks at life through an “ecological model,” meaning to know the systems that we operate within impact our ability to eat and be healthy. She said that’s how humans define themselves.

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