Hunger gnaws at Cochise County citizens more than the average American.
The poverty rate in Cochise County is 18.7 percent, according to the 2016 U.S. Census Bureau compared to the national rate of 12.7 percent. This difference makes food banks and aid organizations increasingly important in Cochise County communities.
Walking around the town of Tombstone tourists see horse drawn waggons, wild west saloons and historic gunfight reenactments. They smell country air, dust, and sweet fudge from one of many gift shops, but they might not know that hunger lives here, too.
With little opportunity for well paying jobs many in the Tombstone community go hungry. This becomes evident at the end of the town’s famed O.K. Corral gun show when the actor playing Doc Holliday asks for donations for the Starving Actors Fund.
Tombstone Community Food Bank, hidden behind the fire department and an urgent care center, combats hunger in the area, serving communities from St. David to Bisbee. Run by a small staff of five volunteers, the food bank serves 1,300 people every month.
“There’s just no work here,” said Ben Thompson, food bank supervisor. “There’s much more poor than there are rich.”
With the holidays coming up and an influx of seasonal people coming in for the colder months, the demand for food is on the rise, Thompson explained.
“Towards the middle of October the winter birds come in,” Thompson said, “and then there’s not an empty trailer park around here.”
Food bank visitors range from families with children to elderly with fixed incomes, Thompson said. No one is turned away.
“We have everything that they need,” Thompson said. People receive 10 pounds of dry goods monthly and fresh produce weekly.
Families with more members receive more food and families with emergencies can come in any time.
“If they come in and say the electricity is going to get turned off and I’ve got six kids to feed, then we will do an emergency donation,” Thompson said.
“We give them whatever we have,” Thompson said.
Thompson drives every Tuesday the hour and 20 minute drive to Tucson to pick up meat and produce from the largest regional food bank, the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona.
Hunger in Tombstone reflects the greater need throughout Cochise County. The Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, based in Tucson, distributed 5.6 million pounds of food in Cochise County in the last year. Two-thirds of that is produce, which people like Thompson receive for their regional food banks.
A bigger problem that plagues Cochise County is access to food because of its large size and rural nature.
“Cochise County is a huge food desert,” said Becky Smyth, grants manager for the Legacy Foundation of Southeast Arizona. “You can count the number of real grocery stores on one hand for the whole county practically.”
The Legacy Foundation works to fund and promote health in Cochise County and Eastern Santa Cruz County. In 2015 it partnered with the Community Food Bank with a three year grant totalling $500,000.
Part of the grant went to bringing more food to existing food banks and developing new locations because access to transportation for the poor is limited in Cochise County.
“For example, there’s a grocery store in Willcox,” Smyth said, “but you have to be able to drive there, you can’t just walk down the street and access food.”
Candace Weingart, the Rural Areas Capacity Coordinator for the Community Food Bank and who works specifically within Cochise County.
Weingart drove over 2,300 miles last month to reach Cochise County residents in need.
“The food desert concept is real in our towns, in Tombstone there is not one single grocery store,” Weingart said. “I go all over the county to meet people. I go to them and we try to tease apart solutions.”
In Cochise County, food insecurity strikes 16 percent of the county’s population; 15 percent receive food stamps. Hunger strikes elderly and children most often, according to the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona.
“When kids have to eat from Circle K they do not have good nutrition, and it hurts their grades at school,” Smyth said.
As the holidays draw near, Thompson prepares for more traffic at the Tombstone food bank. Canned pumpkin, green beans and corn stock the shelves.
His next job? “…rounding up the turkeys.”
Tirion Morris is a reporter for the Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism at the University of Arizona. Reach her at email@example.com
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