About three years ago, when U.S. Postal Service employee Gary Lee was gathering donations at the Friendship Village retirement community in Tempe for the letter carriers’ annual food drive, he looked inside a plastic bag and discovered about two-thirds of a cherry pie.
The median age of people Lee delivers to in the 85282 ZIP code is 84, and someone mistakenly thought that all the plastic bags surrounding one of the retirement community’s mailbox units were for trash pickup day.
“At first, I thought, ‘Who would donate two-thirds of a pie?’ But then I saw other stuff in the bag, too,” Lee said. “It was trash. Someone must not have realized we were having a food drive.
“And no, we didn’t donate a partial pie,” Lee said, laughing.
However, Lee, who has been a mail carrier for 37 years, said he has filled his mail truck up with food donations the second Saturday in May for the last 19 years — so many in fact, that the table they were placed on inside the activity center of Friendship Village during the food drive’s earlier days was so weighted down it bowed and had to be retired.
This year, as the Postal Service asks Congress to reduce the mail carriers’ work week from six days to five to save an estimated $3 billion in operating costs and end Saturday delivery, a group of Tempe mail carriers that make 25,885 deliveries on 42 routes in the 85282 ZIP code from its post office at 233 Southern Ave. is hyped up to have another banner year.
Congress has not yet decided whether to end Saturday delivery, but if it does, mail carriers say they’ll just have the food drive on another day.
On Wednesday and Thursday, residents should receive a reminder card for the 19th annual National Association of Letter Carriers Stamp Out Hunger Food Drive. On Friday and Saturday, people will receive plastic bags in their mailboxes to place food donations in.
The letter carriers’ food drive, which is aided by numerous volunteers, will fortify food banks throughout the Valley including St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance and St. Vincent de Paul Food Bank in Phoenix as well as the United Food Bank of the East Valley.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Lee said. “It’s a great thing to do, and it’s the right thing to do. It’s nice that the food drive caught on quickly and has grown so much. We have a lot of fun collecting the donations, and it builds camaraderie here between the guys.”
For the last 15 years, mail carrier Fernando Urias has been coordinating the food drive at the Tempe post office. He is assisted by family members and friends who help sort the food.
“In the months after Christmas and when schools are out, the food banks begin to get a little low,” Urias said. “I’ve never had to go to a food bank, but I know people who have. It personally touches me to go out and collect food for those who need it. It’s a lot of work, but I enjoy it.”
Last year, the letter carriers at the Southern Avenue post office location collected 15,578 pounds of food donations, and overall, the Arizona Merged Branch 1902 of the National Association of Letter Carriers, representing 10 municipalities throughout the region, collected 406,221 pounds.
Since 2000, letter carriers have hauled in 3.7 million pounds of food donations, mostly canned goods, according to information from the U.S. Postal Service office in Phoenix.
In recent years, food donations were down, but picked up a little bit last year, Urias said.
“We always want to collect more than we did the previous year,” Urias said. “Anything more is good.”
For the food drive, glass bottles are discouraged. Items that are specifically needed include canned vegetables and fruit, soup and stews, peanut butter, rice, beans and pasta.
If you forget to put any donations in or near your mailbox, the letter carriers also will be collecting donations for a few days the following week.
“It’s a big day,” said Peter Hass, spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service in Phoenix. “It certainly is our highlight of the year.”
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