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National Guard deployed to Arizona food banks, grocery stores

Soldiers are helping stock shelves and more.

Arizona National Guard soldiers who have been deployed to war, wildfires and floods are now being assigned to a different kind of emergency: addressing the shortfalls in Arizona’s food supply chain.

During this critical moment in the coronavirus crisis, the Guard is providing forklift operators, truck drivers and labor at grocery stores and food banks.

On Wednesday, more than 700 soldiers fanned out across the state to help fulfill Governor Doug Ducey’s emergency order.

“Anywhere between the four corners of the state, we can move food and supplies where we are needed,” said Lt. Col. Nathaniel Panka, the task force lead.

State leaders and the Arizona National Guard are coordinating with nonprofits and Arizona grocers to identify gaps in service. High demand in recent weeks has left grocery store shelves across the state barren. Grocery chains can’t keep up.

“We are hoping within days we will see store shelves back to a more normal capacity,” said Gene Wykle of the AZ Dept. of Emergency and Military Affairs.

The Arizona National Guard says these missions provide a stop-gap measure until grocery chains hire more staff. Retail giants like Walmart and Bashas are rushing to fill open positions.

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A command center at the Arizona National Guard’s Phoenix headquarters is coordinating efforts between emergency managers of 15 counties and tribal governments. Inside the small building, soldiers process orders, plan missions and dispatch soldiers to carry out their assignments across the state. They drive military trucks that in the past have been used to transport ammunition and MREs, but during this effort will haul groceries and household items.

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During their assignments, the soldiers face the additional challenge of maintaining proper social distancing protocols and undergoing coronavirus screening measures. As soldiers filed in and out of the Phoenix command center, screeners checked their temperature and provided handwashing stations.

The 158th Combat Sustainment and Support Battalion, the 120th Transport Battalion and the 153rd Brigade Support Battalion are supporting the effort.