St. Mary's Food Bank of Phoenix

By Hy Rillero

Published on June 20, 2020

Most Arizonans are surprised to discover that the first food bank in the world started right here in Phoenix. In 1967, St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance was founded in Phoenix, Arizona, by John van Hengel, who is credited today with being the Father of Modern Food Banking. This community model for aiding people struggling to obtain food spread throughout the United States and then the world. It sent a shockwave through the strategy of aiding communities experiencing poverty that still lingers in our society to this day. Mr. van Hengel, who was notably poor throughout his life, credits the idea for modern food banks from an encounter he had with a woman who had ten children and a husband on death row. As she searched through trash bins to find food for her children, she remarked to John that she wished there would be a place where food could be deposited and checked out, a bank of sorts [1]. The concept he created worked by encouraging “the public and private sectors to [work together] in a common, aligned battle against hunger,” said Robert Forney, president and chief of America’s Second Harvest. Corporations would be encouraged to donate their leftover food to cut costs on disposing, or storage, of unusable food. Furthermore, they would receive a tax break on the goods they were able to donate. The tax break was a large incentive for companies to donate food rather than retain it at a cost to themselves.


Since the original St. Mary’s Foodbank Alliance was started, many thousands of food banks have arisen globally. Not all food banks are the same; many have varying models tailored to specific problems experienced locally to them. The two main types of food banks are the frontline and warehouse models. Frontline model food banks give food directly to the hungry. These are generally smaller than warehouse food banks. An example of a frontline model food bank can include an organization such as a soup kitchen or a food pantry. In a soup kitchen, the prepared food is for hungry and often homeless people. At a food pantry, struggling people can take food home to prepare themselves.

While different, a frontline model food bank will often deal directly with a warehouse model food bank. These two different models work hand in hand to bring food to the community. A warehouse food bank is likely just that; a warehouse. A warehouse is to accept and store food for varying periods before the transportation of food to a frontline food bank that will distribute them to individuals. It is specialized for this task, as a frontline model may not have the necessary storage space or capability to hold food for long periods.

Furthermore, the warehouse will likely not have the capability to distribute the food they receive as donations to many individuals within a community. In this way, both the different types of food banks work hand-in-hand to provide food to the hungry across America and the world. Returning Mr. van Hengel’s inspiration, the food is “deposited” at the warehouse model food banks, and “checked out” at frontline model food banks.

John van Hengel, the founder of St. Mary’s Foodbank Alliance, helped grow the food bank industry from founding the concept in 1967. In 1975, he left St. Mary’s briefly to help start the organization known today as Feeding America. Today, St. Mary’s provides food to over 600 partner agencies, many frontline model food banks, to distribute out to the hungry. In 2019, St. Mary’s distributed over 90 million pounds of food. Today, the organization aims to provide 100 million pounds of food by 2021 to meet the needs of over 81,000 square miles of Arizona that the food bank serves [2]. In 2005, Mr. van Hengel passed away. His mission is carried on by St. Mary’s and food banks globally, including Urban Farming Education. In response to the global COVID-19 crisis, UFE has partnered with multiple organizations in a coordinated response to meeting this unprecedented moment.

Fresh Food Collab attempts to alleviate food access issues caused by the COVID-19 outbreak. Our objective is to assist families and individuals by providing nutritious and waste-free boxes to school districts, agencies, and organizations in need. With over 70,000 pounds of produce donated and nearly 10,000 people served, UFE carries the torch lit by John van Hengel.