Debanjan Ghosh/Matthew’s Crossing Food Bank

Debanjan Ghosh, a volunteer who goes by the name Jon, gathers food to put in baskets and carts.

A nonprofit organization that launched in a church kitchen nearly 20 years ago offers hope and nourishment to tens of thousands of people who struggle to get enough food to eat around Christmas and every month of the year.

Matthew’s Crossing Food Bank, which began in 2001 out of Saint Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Chandler, will also be able to offer more fresh produce to food-insecure people thanks to a $12,000 grant from UnitedHealthcare to the Association of Arizona Food Banks.

The food bank became a separate entity in 2005 and now occupies a space on N. Arizona Avenue, just south of Knox Road.

Jan Terhune, executive director of Matthew’s Crossing Food Bank, said the nonprofit’s mission is to “provide food and basic necessities to our neighbors in need and unite the community in the fight against hunger.”

“What we’ve deduced over time is that our clients actually look a lot like you and I,” Terhune said. “They have jobs, maybe one, two, three (jobs). They have vehicles. They’re just in that space where they can’t make ends meet and need a little help.”

Matthew’s Crossing Food Bank helped more than 80,000 people last year, Terhune said. Its many programs include the food bank that is open weekdays, a holiday food distribution around Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter and Meals to Grow programs that provide food to students in East Valley schools.

Anyone in need can show up at Matthew’s Crossing Food Bank weekdays to get an emergency food box by showing a photo ID and registering with the nonprofit.

The boxes have enough nonperishable food for six to eight days of hunger relief, including pasta, rice, beans, fruit or vegetables and soup. The emergency food boxes are available from 9 a.m. to noon Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and from 4 to 6 p.m. on Wednesdays.

Matthew’s Crossing also picks up perishable food such as milk, eggs, meat and yogurt from 18 grocery stores every week.

Matthew’s Crossing Food Bank also provides food through drives held by 50 to 60 other organizations, including the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, fitness centers, Intel and VFW posts.

“Our primary source of revenue is from individuals who either give to us at tax credit season, which is now,” Terhune said. “Every spring we have A Night To Fight Hunger gala.”

Matthew’s Crossing Food Bank also distributes meals for Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter.

It gives out about 600 meals with turkey, pie and the traditional trimmings for Thanksgiving. Around Christmas, people receive ham, vegetables, stuffing, a cake mix and other items, Terhune said. Hams are part of the meals at Easter.

Some of the food is provided by Marlin Services, a contractor.

Every month, people 65 and older can pick up boxes with pasta, vegetables, fruit and other foods through a senior food box program that Matthew’s Crossing Food Bank offers in partnership with St. Mary’s Food Bank.

And children, teens and community college students can get help through Matthew’s Crossing Food Bank’s Meals To Grow program. The nonprofit distributes 1,000 backpacks filled with canned meat, fruit, vegetables, pasta and other foods to students in Chandler, Gilbert, Higley, Mesa and Tempe schools every week.

Each backpack has enough food to feed the students two breakfasts, two lunches, two dinners and many snacks so they can get through their weekend without being hungry.

Food closets at Chandler-Gilbert Community College, as well as in junior high and high school campuses around the East Valley, offer food to students for weekday evening needs.

The Summer Snack Pack program offers students snacks with protein including vegetables and fruit to get through the summer as one of the other Meals To Grow efforts. Matthew’s Crossing provided 200 snack packs in the summer of 2016 and 7,000 snack packs in the summer of last year, Terhune said.

As part of a new program in Meals to Grow, called Schools-2-Schools, the nonprofit teams up with Gilbert High School and Thew Elementary School in Tempe to provide backpacks filled with food.

Besides offering sustenance for their bodies, Matthew’s Crossing Food Bank also feeds children’s minds.

With its Read to Grow program, anyone in need ages birth to 14 can get free books at the nonprofit organization’s retail space. More than 25,000 books have been given out since the program began in fall 2016.

Saint Matthew’s Episcopal Church buys new books while a book drive Chandler Kiwanis Club organized and donations from Savers thrift store also supply the program.

Matthew’s Food Crossing will be able to buy a three-door refrigeration unit to hold perishable foods with the UnitedHealthcare grant to the Association of Arizona Food Banks.

UnitedHealthcare awarded $2 million in grants to local organizations in Arizona that focused on social determinants to good health, including hunger.

Paz de Cristo in Mesa is the other East Valley organization that received a similar grant and Terhune said, “What their investment is going to be used for is another three-door refrigeration unit.”

“It will help support rent in additional retail spaces so that we can put in a fridge,” she added.

The goal is to take fruits and vegetables that come to Matthew’s Crossing through United Food Bank via a program sponsored by Feeding America in vans to East Valley schools.

Matthew’s Crossing will likely rotate distribution, designating one day a week or month to Chandler-Gilbert Community College and the schools in the K-12 school districts, Terhune said.

“Just from a nutrition perspective, if you can eat healthier you’re gonna be happier,” she said. “And frankly children and adults who don’t have to struggle with hunger relief do better in school and life. We’re blessed. Those opportunities (for grants) are far and few between.”

Joe Gaudio, CEO of UnitedHealthcare Community Plan of Arizona, said Matthew’s Crossing Food Bank is a deserving organization.

The insurer chose Arizona and four other states for the recent grants.

Gaudio said he is “very impressed,” especially since Matthew’s Crossing is going to add fresh produce.

“They’ve been doing it for over 17 years,” Gaudio said. “They have an emphasis on emergency food boxes. We don’t talk enough about the Matthew’s Crossings and the Paz de Cristos and all the other smaller-scale food banks that take place that are out there that you’ll find in schools, find in churches.

“The work that they do is incredible, and it has allowed for what amounts to a distribution system. There’s a network for smaller food banks that are supported. It’s really amazing to see how that system comes together to meet a great need, and we’re honored and privileged to be a part of it.”

He said UnitedHealthcare’s mission is “to help people live healthier lives.”

“We are a health insurance company, but we provide health insurance across multiple lines of business or products,” Gaudio said. “We’re more than a healthcare company. We’re more than a payer. We provide our members with access to a fantastic network of hospitalists and specialists and other physicians. We’ve done a very unique housing initiative.”

He said UnitedHealthcare invited organizations to talk about their mission and how they would spend the grant money, and the Association of Arizona Food Banks was impressive.

“They are a disciplined organization,” with a strong reputation, Gaudio said. “There’s just not a lot of fresh produce provided to food banks because it’s expensive to ship. That just really struck a chord.”

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