Free For All

Drive-thru fair food fun — and charity at Arizona Fair Grounds Oct. 22, 23 & 25

Officials add canned food drive benefitting St. Mary's Food Bank


Missed out on the state fair this year?

In the absence of prized pigs, tilt-a-whirls and hard-won giant teddy bears, fans of the statewide carnival will, at least, get one more chance to sample some tastes, smells and sights that make the annual event a memorable treat — while helping those in need.

Officials this week announced a fifth and final weekend of their Arizona State Fair Drive-Thru Fair Food event — this time adding a special drive-thru food drive to benefit St. Mary’s Food Bank at a time when the nonprofit charity group can use the help.

Running noon to 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday and then from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Sunday, the no-admission event offers attendees a chance to enjoy their favorite concession-stand grub from the safety and comfort of their automobiles.

(The Saturday hours, included during the previous four events, are this weekend instead devoted to drive-thru early voting ballot drop offs.)

The drive-thru food-drive this weekend will attempt to replace the fair’s annual food drive, called We Can Wednesdays, when visitors would usually bring canned-good donations in exchange for free admission.

Brianda Martinez, a spokeswoman for Arizona Exposition State Fair, explained how the unexpectedly popular drive-thru event expanded from its original two-weekend plan to five weeks, inspiring officials to add the food drive during this final outing.

“We were only scheduled to be open for two weekends, and we extended it to five weekends total,” Ms. Martinez said. “And we did it because we saw the overwhelming demand that was happening and we said, let’s just extend it as much as we can and let people have a taste of the fair, even though we had to cancel it.”

Ms. Martinez said the event seems to have brought a lot of cheer at a time when people need something fun to do.

“It was a way for us to still bring in the people when a not a lot else is happening out there, bring a little bit of normalcy. It was a way for us to still do something in such a weird time,” she added.

The annual Wednesday canned-food drive, canceled along with the state fair, was too important to ignore during these difficult times, she said.

“We usually donated 100,000 pounds of food to St. Mary’s every year from We Can Wednesdays, which was a very popular program. But unfortunately, with the cancellation, this fell through,” Ms. Martinez explained. “So, we said, let’s do something to help them with what we couldn’t bring because of the cancellation.”

Bad year, big needs

Jerry Brown, spokesman for St. Mary’s, echoed the importance of the annual fair ground food drive to his organization’s mission.

“We had what’s called a ‘We Care Wednesday’ in each week of the state fair, where we’d collect food in exchange for free entry,” Mr. Brown said. “And we’d normally collect about 100,000 pounds of food over those three weeks. And it’s really good fruits and vegetables people need … because people were saving $10 to go in. So, we lose all of that food because there’s no fair this year.”

With the COVID-19 pandemic and unprecedented need in the community, Mr. Brown losing one of the nonprofit’s biggest annual food drives was a double-whammy at just the wrong time.

This was compounded by the cancellation of many other planned events St. Mary’s has relied on in previous years, when the demand was less urgent.

“We’ve lost a lot of food during this time,” Mr. Brown said. “Now add in sporting events and concerts and all of the other things where we do a lot of food drives over the course of the year and you can see how much COVID has really cost us.”

He said making up for lost ground now is especially important, since Thanksgiving is just a month away and they expect families with greater needs will also be challenged to break up the traditional big-group meal in favor of smaller, separate gatherings due to necessary social distancing.

“We’re expecting the number will jump from the 12,000 families we normally serve in the three days leading up to Thanksgiving to about 15,000 this year,” Mr. Brown said. “And we think that will be the case, number one because of unemployment and financial problems folks are having; but also, the idea that families that normally gather together at one table will want to not do that this year because of social distancing.”

“Instead of going to grandma’s house where there’s one turkey, they’ll be staying home and they will need two turkeys,” he added.

Mr. Brown said since March — when calls for help tripled and then quadrupled in the wake of the initial outbreak — the charity group has consistently seen a 20% to 25% increase compared to other years.

If things get worse, that need will likely increase again in communities across Arizona at a time when food bank stocks are perilously low headed into the holiday season.

“There’s also the possibility that COVID may kick up again,” Mr. Brown suggested. “We are already seeing the numbers of daily cases jumping up again, though it hasn’t gotten to the hospitals yet. But if we have to do any kind of limited or widespread shutdowns again, that will probably put is back in the same position we were in back in March and April.”

He said the canned most-needed canned goods include fruits and vegetables, as well as meaty, ready-to-eat foods, like raviolis.

Learn more about needed donations at St. Mary's website.

Convenient fun

During the fairground event’s first weekend, the lines were long and perhaps a bit slow because officials had never tried anything like drive-thru concessions before, Ms. Martinez said.

Having done it over successive weekends, organizers have the system down now and things have been running smoothly, despite an enthusiastic outpouring of interest from the public.

“It was the first time ever doing something like this,” Ms. Brown said. “Right away we started changing the flow, changing the placement, the layout … and now people are coming by and they are out in about 20 minutes.”

Though the whole plan was something of a contingency from the beginning, it has turned out to be a lot of fun for everyone involved, she said.

“In the privacy of your own car, you can get as much fair food as you want, no one’s going to see you, no one’s going to judge you, bring your family and friends. It’s pretty cool,” she added.

Those who want to attend must enter the fairgrounds at 19th Avenue and Monte Vista. Credit card and cash are both accepted as lines of motorists get served by scores of attendants.

The course wends past nine different vendors offering every manner of carb-laden comestible, from kettle corn to funnel cakes, corn dogs to fry bread. All with a generous side of colorful cotton candy.

Job savers

Beyond the nostalgic indulgence of fried everything and the well-timed opportunity to extend some charity — the drive-thru has helped dozens of workers, who rely on the fair for their very livelihoods.

Dominic Palmieri, CEO of Odyssey Foods, said his family has worked in carnivals and food service for more than 60 years.

Despite cancellations of fairs and other events across several states, the drive-thru weekends at the Arizona fairgrounds have been a bright spot.

“Doing the drive-thru fair food event for us has been really good,” Mr. Palmieri said. “We’ve been actually selling as much food, if not more, than actually during normal fair time.”

He said adding the drive-thru weekends has been a boon to concessionaires — who normally would be traveling around to events, which this year have mostly been cancelled.

This has helped his company retain the bulk of its local employees at a time when many other employers have been forced to make drastic and unwanted cuts.

“I think this year we must have more than 150 people working between all of the concession stands,” Mr. Palmieri said. “That’s a big deal. We have 12 or 14 food stands, and because we were working long hours and some double shifts, we were able to keep about 125 jobs.”

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