Tzu Chi Phoenix Service Center Reworks 30 Year Distribution Model During COVID-19

National Headquarters  |  February 15, 2022
The Tzu Chi Phoenix Service Center has been distributing food boxes for nearly 30 years. Photo/Arthur Lai

Interview by Lin Cixuan, Lai Jiteng
Written by Li Chenglin
Edited by Maggie Morgan
Translated by Hong (Ariel) Chan

Since its establishment in 1995, the Tzu Chi Phoenix Service Center has had hundreds of volunteers walk through its doors; generations worth of sleeves have rolled up to get to work, organizing food box distribution events for those in need. For nearly three decades, the Center has worked closely with the United Food Bank under the Arizona government. Throughout the years, food banks regularly delivered food on Fridays, which would then be sorted and packaged by volunteers from the Center. The shipments were Tzu Chi Phoenix’s main resource for the food box distribution events, but the pandemic interrupted this long-established practice.

Over the past two years, COVID-19 forced the Tzu Chi Phoenix Service Center to rethink their model for food distribution events. For over three-and-a-half months, during the most severe period of the pandemic, volunteers were particularly stuck as stay-at-home orders rolled in. The team quickly found that mandates didn’t mean the work could stop, and the needs of community residents were only increasing. The Tzu Chi Phoenix Service Center buckled down and adjusted their previous processes to fit the new normal. By consciously reducing their interaction with beneficiaries and following safety guidelines, volunteers were able to resume food distribution events.

Arizona’s government officials reported surging unemployment rates and a staggering number of affected households. The rapidly increasing demands meant United Food Bank’s system could no longer meet the needs of the state. In response to this dilemma, the government allocated additional funding to partners of the organization; the monetary support gave places like the Tzu Chi Phoenix Service Center the ability to purchase food directly from markets and then distribute it to communities in need.

All purchased food needs to be sorted and packaged by volunteers before being sent to the public. Photo/Arthur Lai

Love is Never in Short Supply

The Tzu Chi Phoenix Service Center was granted $10,000 after applying for the government funding initiative. On February 15, volunteers were able to purchase essential supplies from mass-market stores and wholesalers specializing in bulk food.

The same day, volunteers brought back about 1,000 pounds of food that included: 150 pounds of onions, 100 pounds of potatoes, 50 pounds of carrots, about 150 pounds of assorted fruits and vegetables, and 500 pounds of almond milk and breakfast cereals.

Serendipitous meetings always seem to happen to Tzu Chi volunteers, and that February day was no different. Amy Chen, a team member from the Center, ran into a woman named Ana at the market. Ana was doing a product demonstration on the spot and noticed the volunteers shopping. After she found out where they were from and what they were purchasing, Ana asked if she could get help from the food distribution.

Wholesalers specializing in restaurant staples have plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables to offer. Photo/Arthur Lai
Volunteers buy healthy and nutritious food. Photo/Arthur Lai

Thank God I met you today!

Ana said to Amy, “I’m really happy. You may not understand the situation of being single. I don’t have a husband or any assistance. I can only work hard by myself.” After sharing her struggles with Amy, Ana wrote down the Tzu Chi Service Center’s address and hours of operation. The woman listened contentedly as volunteers told her more about the services offered by Tzu Chi and the foundation’s mission. 

Before receiving funding from the state, the Tzu Chi Phoenix Service Center had already supplemented their regular food boxes with fresh fruits and vegetables from the market. The staff of the mass merchandiser had become familiar with the volunteers clad in blue uniforms as they made weekly trips to the store. As they began to recognize the same faces arriving at the shop, staff would occasionally greet and thank the volunteers for caring about their community.

Every week, Tzu Chi volunteers, clad in blue uniforms, can be spotted shopping at the supermarket. Photo/Arthur Lai
Volunteers purchased nearly 1,000 pounds of food. Photo/Arthur Lai

Time and time again, branches of the Tzu Chi tree extend into the community and sprout love wherever they reach. It seems the circle of compassion grows effortlessly as Tzu Chi volunteers express sincere attention and care to every citizen who comes across their path. The beauty, kindness and reciprocity ripples out to the hearts of everyone in sight, even the grocery store clerks who witness the simple act of paying it forward.

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