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At 12:55 p.m. on a Saturday, a dozen or so cars sat idling in the snowy parking lot of the Fairview Community Recreation Center in Anchorage’s Fairview neighborhood.
Cardboard boxes, backpacks and bags were neatly queued on the ground as people, thoroughly bundled up against the cold, chatted with one another in a variety of languages. Smiles came readily.
One older, bearded man called out, “Hey, I got somethin’ for ya!” Handing a copy of a flier advertising the Food Bank of Alaska’s Thanksgiving Blessing out the window of a tired old pickup, he added “Come and get ya some groceries, and don’t forget your fork and spoon!”
Others waited in the warmth of the community center’s foyer, anxiously anticipating the arrival of the Food Bank’s Mobile Food Pantry truck. The truck, purchased by the Anchorage East Rotary for use by the Food Bank, normally pulls in around 1 p.m. Food distribution starts promptly at 2 p.m., after volunteers sort food, register those in line to receive it, and pass out numbers to ensure an orderly and swift process.
The volunteers who staff the twice-monthly distribution at the Fairview center are members of Anchorage East Rotary, and are led by Rotarian Anne Marie Moylan. Before seeing the Mobile Food Pantry at work, Moylan confessed to thinking Rotary was only for “squares,” as she admitted, laughing. But when former Anchorage Assemblywoman Heather Flynn dragged her to the event one Saturday, she was hooked.
Moylan and others involved in the Fairview Mobile Food Pantry talk effusively about the good feelings they get from their involvement. But feeding the hungry in Alaska is serious work.
Food insecurity in Alaska has increased 56 percent since 2008. Although the economy in Alaska hasn’t suffered as much as it has elsewhere, it is clear that families here are struggling to make ends meet and are relying on the state’s network of food banks to put food on their tables.
“Hunger affects 13 percent of our population,” said Susannah Morgan, former executive director of the Food Bank of Alaska. “If that was a disease it would be a public-health crisis.”
Although the Fairview Mobile Food Pantry, and others like it around Anchorage, is a direct-service effort to provide perishable food aid to local residents, it’s a bit of an outlier compared to the majority of what the Food Bank of Alaska does on a daily basis. Most of its work is about logistics. What they do – and do quite well – is distribute millions of pounds of food to more than 300 partner agencies across Alaska.
“One of the things people have trouble wrapping their heads around is how statewide we are, and that we really are shipping food from Metlakatla to Adak to Barrow,” Morgan said.
Alaska’s food network benefits from donations from groceries – the big ones, like Carrs/Safeway and Costco and Fred Meyer – and also smaller ones like the Red Apple Market in Anchorage’s Mountain View neighborhood. Drivers pick up food every day that is past its expiration date, but still edible, for distribution throughout the state. In the Food Bank warehouse, pallets of donations from grocery stores are stacked to the cavernous ceiling.
While private industry partners are vital to feeding the hungry, the state’s network of food assistance providers continues to need support from everyday Alaskans.
Morgan relayed a story about a boy coming to elementary school with a big box of toys and asking the principal if he could sell them at school. He was trying to help his family because his mom lost her job the week before and they needed money for food.
“As long as there is a child – anybody really, but particularly a child – who is not getting the nutrition they need to have the absolute best chance of being successful, then we’ve got work to do and we need help,” Morgan said.