ASU Lodestar Center


Abstract art photo, featuring warm colors.

Small-town food pantry finds big solutions during pandemic

A person wearing a face mask carries fresh plants. Behind them is a house, fence, and greenhouse.

by Troy Hill, ASU Lodestar Center
April 23, 2020

Safford is a small city in Graham County, Arizona, with a population of 9,600, nestled within the Gila River Valley of Eastern Arizona. Like the rest of the state and country, Safford is coping with the COVID-19 pandemic and its far-reaching impacts. There, Our Neighbors Farm & Pantry (ONF&P), a local nonprofit organization, has run into its own set of challenges.

At the same time that ONF&P has seen a 45% increase in demand for its pantry products and produce, the organization stopped receiving donations from a local grocery store. And yet ONF&P has fought to stay open amid the coronavirus crisis.

“Now we are boxing everything up before [people] ever get here,” said Stacey Leah Scarce, the executive director of Our Neighbors Farm & Pantry. “We'll go out to their vehicle, get a little information from them, come back. We might add more into the boxes. And then we put the box on a table. They pick up the box and put it in their vehicle.”

This is ONF&P’s new way of serving members of their community, who need its services now more than ever. Their normal mode of operation is that of a “choice pantry” - where people can choose what food they want to take home from the one-acre garden and pantry. But since group sizes have been restricted, ONF&P can only let employees and regular volunteers into the farm.

ONF&P has had to temporarily put their garden education program on hold - a program that brings in up to $500 a week for the organization - because of the shutdown of local schools.

Donations have also taken a drastic downturn - especially in bread, which is down 80%. But ONF&P has shown resilience by reaching out to local businesses to form unique partnerships.

First, ONF&P buys draft beer from a local bar, closed due to the pandemic, and then gives that beer and donated flour to a local bakery. The bakery makes bread using those two ingredients, utilizing the beer for its yeast, which has come in short supply in recent weeks. From this community partnership comes fresh bread for ONF&P’s boxes.

Scarce said their community has done amazing things for their organization - even before the difficult times. She said that a school food drive last year produced just short of 20,000 pounds of food donated to their organization. This April, with donations of meat dropping rapidly, major local employer Freeport-McMoRan donated over 600 pounds of meat.

“That is how this community is. The whole community is about sharing and helping others,” Scarce said.

Another example of this, Scarce said, is how reliant on their volunteers they are. If it wasn’t for ONF&P’s volunteers, they wouldn’t be able to serve people in their community the way they are right now.

The pantry has also looked outside of Arizona for creative solutions. A community member spoke with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Bishop’s Central Storehouse in Salt Lake City, Utah. The community member worked with the storehouse and managed to have 27 pallets donated to the pantry - 40,000 pounds of food.

Scarce said she thinks the whole community in Safford is resilient.

“It seems that, since this community is so isolated, that they really depend on each other an awful lot. And that helps in times like this because they will come to your rescue when you need things.”

Scarce and other leadership in ONF&P have also spent a lot of time working on backup plans for their services. She said they do this “to make sure that people stay safe and we can stay open.”

Scarce wants people to know that, if they are struggling in this time, there are numerous organizations who can help them, no matter what community they live in.