After over 50 years serving hot meals to homebound elderly and low-income adults in and around Pima County, the nonprofit Mobile Meals of Southern Arizona finally has a place of its own.
The organization just purchased a building on Tucson’s south side, once home to the El Indio Mexican Food Restaurant. Fundraising is underway to renovate the space, with a grand opening expected in May.
This is the first time the agency has owned its own building and will operate its own kitchen to prepare meals for communities up and down the I-19 corridor.
“Our demand is growing, and we need to fill that demand, so we needed to make an evolutionary change in how we operate to take care of people in need,” said Robert Jensen, chief executive officer of MMSA.
The agency has historically contracted with about 10 hospitals and assisted living facilities to prepare meals, but Jensen said the COVID-19 pandemic exposed weaknesses in that structure.
Demand for MMSA's services grew significantly during the pandemic – the number of clients reached 800 this year, almost twice as many as 2019 – but their contractors couldn’t handle the surge.
“With the need continuing to grow, those facilities were topping out and could not prepare more meals for us. There’s been a number of times this year where we’ve had to put people on waiting lists because the facilities just can’t make any more food for us,” Jensen said.
The pandemic’s toll on the workforce also impacted their ability to serve. Just last week, Jensen said one of their smaller suppliers lost three kitchen staff members due to a vaccine mandate, and said they could no longer prepare meals for the group.
“If that had been one of our larger suppliers, we would really be in a terrible, hard spot to try to find and source meals, to be able to continue to feed people...you just can’t leave yourself exposed to risks of that nature,” Jensen said.
“In order for us to fulfill our mission – to feed people in need – we really needed to have our own facility, where there is no ceiling and where we can control getting food to as many people that want it.”
A $300,000 capital campaign is underway to renovate the old restaurant space, which will accommodate MMSA's administrative offices, a new kitchen and a community garden. Once completed, the facility will have the capacity to prepare up to 1,600 meals a day and over 400,000 meals a year.
Meals will continue to be delivered Monday through Friday, and the expanded capacity means clients will soon be able to extend orders into the weekend and on holidays. There will be no interruption to meal delivery service through the transition.
Beyond increasing capacity, the new kitchen also allows MMSA to offer clients a wider variety of menu options. In addition to their current offerings of special diet and Kosher/Halal meals, efforts are underway to design and deliver more meals aligned with native and Latino community preferences.
The organization also recently received a grant to purchase a new meal delivery van, which Jensen said has opened the door for expanding services and potential partnerships in other rural communities, like Arivaca.
“We’re going to continue to go down that I-19 corridor because we feel there is a need. We have done some research and have identified a need for our services in those rural areas, which are undeserved and have just as much food insecurity as other places,” Jensen said.
MMSA will continue to contract with its distribution partners in Green Valley – Santa Cruz Valley Regional Hospital and La Posada Assisted Living Community – and will also use the van to transport meals to volunteers in their more southern routes in Rio Rico, Tubac, Amado and Nogales.
“Like everything else, this expansion is all based on filling the need in our community, which continues to grow. And like everything, if it means we get to feed more people, we’re more than happy to do it,” Jensen said.