About four years ago, when U.S. Postal Service employee Gary Lee was gathering donations at the Friendship Village retirement community in Tempe for the National Association of Letter Carriers’ annual Stamp Out Hunger Food Drive, he looked inside a plastic bag and discovered about two-thirds of a cherry pie.
The median age of people Lee delivers to in the 85282 ZIP code is 84, and someone mistakenly thought that all the plastic bags surrounding one of the retirement community’s mailbox units were for trash pickup day.
“At first, I thought, ‘Who would donate two thirds of a pie?’ But then I saw the other stuff in the bag, too,” Lee said at the time. “It was trash. Someone must not have realized we were having a food drive.
“And no, we didn’t donate a partial pie,” Lee said laughing.
Lee, who has 38 years of service in with the U.S. Postal Service, will be one of 4,500 mail carriers throughout Arizona hoping to fill their mail trucks this weekend to benefit Stamp Out Hunger, a national food collection effort celebrating its 20th year. Last year, the program collected about 900,000 pounds of food in Maricopa County and more than 1.8 million pounds statewide. More than 70 million pounds of food is brought in nationally for various food banks.
So, if you’ve seen a post card inside your mailbox this week that says “Fill a Bag. Feed Families,” it’s a reminder to help your neighbors whose cupboards might be running a little low in this downer of an economy; that also goes for the warehouses of local food banks, each tending to run a little low going into the summer.
One in five Arizonans lives below the federal poverty line and record numbers of Valley residents continue to turn to local food banks, according to the Valley of the Sun United Way.
The Stamp Out Hunger Food Drive benefits St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance, the United Food Bank of the East Valley and the St. Vincent de Paul Food Bank.
“We’re asking you to play a role in what we see as the most important food drive of the year for us,” said Jerry Brown, a spokesman for the St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance. “We really count on this food to carry us through the summer. A lot of people usually head for the hills in the summer or travel in the summer to stay cool, and those who can’t afford it, are left behind. If folks would take the time to drop a couple of cans in the mailbox this Saturday, that would be great. Helping out is something you can do without leaving your driveway.”
Brown also was quick to say that although St. Mary’s received about 340,000 pounds of food last year, it currently has 28 percent less food than it had at the same time a year ago. Overall, food donations are down 10 to 15 percent from previous years — a noticeable drop, Brown said. In addition to food donations being down, St. Mary’s is being pinched by high gasoline prices for its trucks — diesel fuel being $4 a gallon or more. That hinders a very critical part of the food distribution process.
The food drive actually was started about 25 years ago by a group of mail carriers in the Valley, when a handful at Post 576 in Phoenix took it upon themselves to print up flyers announcing that they were conducting a food drive on a Sunday. From there, the food drive grew and transformed into a national event. Today, many post offices throughout cities in the East Valley have friendly rivalries, egging each other on and challenging one another as to who can collect the most food.
Last year, Tempe’s South Station at 8205 S. Priest Drive collected 18,800 pounds of food to top all the post office branches throughout the East Valley. Mesa’s Desert Station at 6644 E. Broadway Road was second in the East Valley by collecting 17,000 pounds of food, according to the Valley of the Sun United Way.
Which sections of the East Valley will put help to lead their post offices to the top this year?
Geoff Ouimet, a mail carrier for Mesa’s Branch 1902 who is helping to coordinate food drive colletion efforts there, echoed Brown’s sentiments.
“This is a way to get food to our neighbors,” Ouimet said. “As mail carriers, we walk through neighborhoods every day. We know foreclosures are happening and can see when a neighborhood is going down and when people are struggling. To me, the food bank is there to help people in a non-intrusive way. For people throughout the Valley and the nation, this is something easy to help out in a big way without spending a lot of money. As postal workers, we know we can be in that same situation, so we’re continuing to do what we can to help.”
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