A Phoenix food bank for HIV and AIDS patients plans to discuss changing its policies and procedures after Phoenix New Times reached out while reporting a story on a patron who says he received moldy, expired food.
Joseph Gaxiola, the board chairman of the Joshua Tree Feeding Program, said the all-volunteer food bank typically has volunteers check donated food on Tuesdays to make sure it's still fresh before it's distributed on Wednesdays, but it "seems like" the job wasn't done thoroughly last week when it appeared that several months-old products were passed out.
The food bank, which has served Maricopa County's low-income, HIV-positive population since 1988, will discuss fixing the issue at a meeting today.
The decision comes after a Phoenix man reached out to New Times over the weekend to report he was concerned for local residents' health after visiting the food bank on December 4. He said all the groceries he received were expired, and some were perishable, including bagels covered in mold and cream cheese that was nearly seven months past its best-by date.
"These are not safe food items to be distributing to anyone, in my opinion, let alone those with compromised immune systems," said the man, who asked to remain anonymous because of his HIV-positive status.
He told New Times that volunteers handed out items as he walked through a line, and he didn't inspect his selections or expiration dates until he got home. That's when he realized he'd received frozen chicken pasta from September, frozen quinoa from April, cream cheese from May, and moldy bagels.
Gaxiola confirmed that the same brands of pasta, quinoa, cream cheese, and bagels were distributed on December 4 from grocery store donations to the food bank.
Sell-by and best-by dates don't always indicate how safe a food is to eat, especially for frozen and nonperishable foods. USDA guidelines instruct that it's often safe to keep certain items frozen for a few months past their expiration dates. But people with HIV and AIDS are more susceptible to infections — including those that come from eating bad food — than the general population, according to the FDA.
When New Times reached out to request comment from Gaxiola, he said he was "honestly bewildered" that a patron received moldy and expired foods from Joshua Tree.
He said patrons of the free food bank can decline foods or check the expiration dates while at the food bank to avoid accidentally picking up food that's gone bad, but that he would put this issue on the board's agenda for the next meeting.
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He said on Tuesday that volunteers checked all of the bread, but just two of three cream cheese packages, thinking all three were the same.
The Joshua Tree Feeding Program, which distributes food to Maricopa County residents every Wednesday, isn't funded by the state or federal government, and relies on donations to operate. It picks up donations from grocery stores six days a week, and handed out 179,000 pounds of food to its clients last year, according to Gaxiola.
Gaxiola said the food bank is a lifeline for many patrons, including himself.
"There have been months that my SNAP didn't last me that long," Gaxiola said. "I wouldn't be able to eat without Joshua Tree."