BENSON — Every Wednesday morning, more than 400 vehicles line up along both sides of Easy Street in Benson, a rough dirt road that extends past the Benson Community Food Pantry.
Vehicles start arriving around 7 a.m. for a good spot in line, trunks are popped open and drivers wait for a food distribution that starts at 9 a.m. Some of the early arrivals read while waiting, others step out of vehicles and saunter to a neighboring car to chat with someone they recognize. A few drift off into a light doze while they sit and wait.
Food Pantry volunteers start arriving early as well. They pull around onto a dirt parking area in back of the building and start going through pallets stacked with boxes filled with an assortment of produce, meats, rice, cereal and other staples. The place bustles with activity as volunteers look at checklists, sort packaged food, organize and fill boxes destined to be loaded into the trunks of waiting vehicles on Easy Street.
Sometime around 8 a.m. two Benson Area Transit (BAT) buses pull into the back part of the building where they pick up food boxes for individuals who live in Benson and surrounding communities with no transportation.
City of Benson BAT driver Mary Montoya delivers to addresses in Benson’s west side, Mescal and J-6 areas, while Mike Droste delivers to the town’s east side, then heads to Pomerene and St. David.
“The City of Benson suspended its BAT bus service a couple of weeks ago because of the social distancing guidelines due to the coronavirus,” said Najayyah Many Horses, who sits as the Benson Community Food Pantry board president.
“We have several people that rely on the bus service for transportation who come through here every Wednesday for their food boxes. We were concerned about them, so the City of Benson BAT service and Food Pantry are working collaboratively on a home delivery service. We’re using the BAT buses to provide a drop-and-knock, or no-contact delivery at the front door of each residence.”
The delivery program started April 8, and is expected to continue through the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, or until further notice, Many Horses said.
To arrange for a food delivery, residents must call Benson Area Transit at 520-586-9406 each week by 3 p.m. on the Monday prior to Wednesday’s distribution.
“You have to call every week if you need the delivery,” Many Horses said. “When the person calls, we ask for their name, address, date of birth, size of household and number of people in the household that are 65 and older.”
A little over 50 boxes are delivered by the BAT service, and Many Horses expects that number will increase because as the COVID-19 pandemic drags on. The boxes weigh upwards of 60 pounds, so Benson public works employees ride along with the BAT drivers to help unload boxes at each stop.
Along with the BAT deliveries, Volunteer Interfaith Caregiver Program, or VICaP volunteers go to the Food Pantry on Wednesdays to pick up food boxes for elderly and homebound individuals.
When looking at the number of households that have signed up for food assistance, Many Horses said the number has been steadily increasing since the pandemic started.
“Prior to the pandemic, we were distributing food to about 700 people every week,” she said. “That number has since climbed to over a 1,000, and we expect it to go higher than that before this pandemic is over.”
BAT driver Droste agrees.
“Every week that line of cars out there seems to get longer,” he said. “This is so sad. People are out of work and very worried because of the pandemic. They’re starting to hurt financially.”
Food for the Food Pantry distribution comes through the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, a Feeding America program.
Those receiving food are reminded by City of Benson officials to wash all produce well before using it, and to clean counters and other surfaces after putting the food away, per CDC food safety guidelines.