The Community Food Bank in Nogales says it has given out more than a million pounds of fresh produce in Santa Cruz County since launching its weekly drive-through distribution events in April.

And while demand waned not long into the program, leading organizers to consolidate the two weekly giveaways in Nogales and Rio Rico into a single Friday morning distribution at Nogales High School, it has kicked back up again of late, according to Efrain Trigueras, produce operations manager for the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona in Nogales.

“Once they started getting the increase in their unemployment and the food stamps, we saw a decrease in the numbers. And that’s when we went to having it once a week,” Trigueras said. “But now, the numbers are going back up.”

“There’s been Fridays when it’s been non-stop,” he said. “And lately, the last couple weeks, it’s been getting to the point that we’re almost out of the produce before 10 or 11 a.m.”

The resurgence in demand comes as the local produce import season winds down, meaning there are fewer donations available locally, and Trigueras said he wishes they could provide more variety in the boxes. Still, because the local food bank belongs to a regional co-op of food banks, they’ve been able to brings in products such as melons from Yuma and potatoes from Albuquerque, N.M., to add to the weekly mix.

The food bank has also received a big boost from the Arizona National Guard, whose troops have been helping out since the weekly distribution events began in the spring.

The first few events were co-organized by the county government and staffed by volunteers. But as the county backed away (it still supplies a forklift for the weekly giveaways), National Guard troops stepped forward to deliver the boxes into people’s cars, in addition to packing them at the warehouse.

Trigueras explained that the food bank is running two operations: One is the Resource Center at 2636 North Donna Ave. in Nogales, where they provide ongoing emergency food assistance for community members in need and food boxes for seniors. The other is the produce operation, which involves picking up the food from local donors, bringing it to the food bank’s coolers and distributing it.

Currently, there are three National Guard troops assigned to the Resource Center and another 18 working on the produce operation, Trigueras said. And he said they’ve made a big difference.

“We’re actually rescuing more produce now, and we are able to get more challenged produce than before, so it does make a difference,” he said of the extra manpower. (“Rescued” produce means still-edible fruits and vegetables that might otherwise be sent to the landfill, while “challenged” produce means items that are not cosmetically suitable for commercial sale, but are still good to eat.)

The troops are also working throughout the week to put together shipments sent to the food bank’s partners in Cochise and Pima counties, as well as Native American reservations.

The National Guard, which is helping out at no cost to the food bank, is currently committed to the local mission through Sept. 30, though Trigueras said he’s hoping that they’ll be here at least through the end of the year.

As far as the future of the Friday giveaways, he said:

“We haven’t stopped, and we’re going to try to continue doing it as long as we have produce. Even though we’re at the end of the season here locally, whatever is still becoming available, we’re going to try to share it.”

He recalled some of the regular customers he recognizes on Fridays, such as a woman who comes in a little Volkswagen and collects extra boxes for family members and neighbors, and a gentleman from Rio Rico who takes the produce to the senior center there to share.

He also noted some of the positive feedback he’s received, such as a social media post from a woman who thanked the food bank for contributing to her breakfast of yellow squash and eggs. And the folks at the Patagonia Schools, where they also take produce, send photos in return showing how they’ve prepared the food.

“To me, these are the things that say, ‘This is why I’m doing it,’” Trigueras said. “It’s tiring, and you’re exhausted mentally and physically. But once you see those pictures, you’re like, ‘OK, this is good.’”

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