Flagstaff, AZ – Demand at food banks is up dramatically across the country. In northern Arizona the emergency food need has more than tripled since the beginning of the year. Local food banks say people who once donated food are now in line to receive food boxes. And as Arizona Public Radio's Laurel Morales reports there are first timers at the soup kitchen as well.
AMBY: People in line at the food center.
A free meal is the hottest show in town. People line up over an hour before supper time at the Flagstaff Family Food Center. What's on the menu? Turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, even pumpkin pie. It's an early Thanksgiving prepared by Collins Irish Pub.
Sixteen-year-old Michael Austin, a junior at Coconino High School, inhales his food. He comes to the food center almost every day with his family. He says his mom has applied everywhere in town for a job.
AUSTIN: I'm just hoping that she finds a job because she's been job hunting for quite a while now.
AMBY: boisterous crowd
More people pour into the dining room and have to sit six or eight to a table. Brian Ammon, a skilled machinist from Connecticut, says there aren't jobs in his field in Flagstaff. So he settles for eight dollars an hour shoveling dog food at Purina.
AMMON: Connecticut jobs pay more and there was more of em. But I wanted to see my family here so I decided to give it a try.
He and his family hope to move to Kansas where homes are cheaper and jobs are more plentiful.
The numbers at the center usually fall off along with the cold weather. But this year they've remained steady.
Colleen Brochheuser is the cook at the Flagstaff Family Food Center. She's known for her roasted chicken and her laugh.
BROCHHEUSER: I know I wouldn't want to be lookin for a job right now. What were you doing before this? I was a wife and I stayed home and cooked for my family. Now I cook for this family. Do you consider it a family? You bet.
Food center director Sam Godin says they still have many regulars come in every afternoon. But he expected the numbers to be higher given the economic crisis. He thinks people are leaving Flagstaff to live where it's more affordable. He also says many don't show up for a free dinner because of their pride.
GODIN: I mean if your house was on fire you wouldn't hesitate to call the fire department. If you got injured you wouldn't hesitate to go to the hospital. So if you need a meal you shouldn't hesitate to come here.
AMBY: Cross fade center with food bank cooler hum.
Eric Wolverton says at the Saint Mary's Food Bank Alliance people can be somewhat anonymous. He sees a lot of people coming in now for the first time.
WOLVERTON: The need for food always had this face. But that face can be anybody. It could be your neighbor across the street that is going thru a foreclosure on their house. You don't know who needs the food anymore.
Wolverton says donations are way down at a critical time. They typically pull in most of their money in November and December.
Across town at the Northern Arizona Food Bank director Kerry Ketchum walks through the vacuous warehouse, where pallets of cookies and soda outnumber pallets of canned fruit.
KETCHUM: You can see we have a meat and soup bin, can vegetable bin, a fruit bin. And if you take a look you can see they're all very very low right now. We're at the point now we've had to stop our food box production line because if we're not able to put together a nutritional balanced food box why put one together all.
At last count the food bank had only six days of emergency food. In addition to the emergency food boxes the bank provides thousands pounds of meals every month to agencies throughout the region.
Yavapai county faces a similar dilemma - high demand low supply. Vicky Sandoval is spokeswoman for the Yavapai Food Bank in Prescott Valley.
SANDOVAL: A lot of our donors this year have come back to us wanting help instead of trying to help because they can't. We've seen a lot of people who last year were donating turkeys to us and this year they're in line to receive a turkey.
She says people have to make some really hard choices.
SANDOVAL: They're torn between gas for work or looking for work or food so most people are going for the gas and coming here for their food.
She says donations are slowly trickling in. At last count they still didn't have enough turkeys for the thousand families who have requested them.
For Arizona Public Radio I'm Laurel Morales.