Hunger in Colorado continues to be a serious community issue. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, nearly one in 11 Coloradans (9.2 percent) struggle with hunger and not always having enough money to buy food. And nearly one in seven Colorado kids (14 percent) may not know where or when they will get their next meal.
Though it may come as a surprise to some, but the hyper-affluent Roaring Fork Valley is not immune to those mortifying, near-Third-World statistics.
One group is working to mitigate that reality.
A Food Bank of the Rockies tractor-trailer pulls into the parking lot at the Eagle County Community Center in El Jebel at 9 a.m. on a recent Wednesday. Josh Spencer drives the truck, unloads about a dozen pallets of boxed, canned, fresh and frozen food products into the building, which also serves as the Eagle County courtroom and a senior center, then organizes the volunteers and oversees the distribution of food. The next day, Josh recreates the same scene and the same distribution of food in Aspen.
“We want to help you in an emergency situation,” says Sue Ellen Rodwick, branch manager for the Western Slope division of the nonprofit organization Food Bank of the Rockies. “The local (volunteer) community has been doing a wonderful job working with the Eagle County food bank, and they have been increasing how much food they are able to get out to people in need.”
According to Rodwick, Food Bank of the Rockies has been distributing food on the Western Slope for 18 years. Currently, the group is providing food in 10 counties.
As the volunteers arrange the tables in a U-shape, then begin to distribute the food items from the pallets to the tables, Spencer points out how the food bank is arranged and distributed: there is a senior program (CSFP), a program that serves low-income adults (TEFAP — the Emergency Food Assistance Program) and a more general program that serves anyone who shows up.
Outside the large room, in the waiting area, the crowd grows to 40 or so when the Food Bank doors open. On this particular day, about 30 percent of the gathered were seniors, the remaining a mix of families, largely Latino. According to Spencer, they had planned on a crowd of about 80 for this particular day. Since they do not take food back to their home office in Grand Junction, they will distribute all of the food among those clients that are there.
According to Spencer and Mandi Dicamillo, the healthy aging coordinator in El Jebel for Eagle County government, the number of people taking advantage of the Food Bank’s offerings in El Jebel ebb and flow but are about the same as a year ago.
The CSFP component is a program operated by the State of Colorado for seniors 60 and older who meet certain income guidelines. They go through an application process each year, and, if approved, they receive a free box of food each month. Peering down into one of the boxes, there were walnuts, split peas, pinto beans, lentils, canned peas, green beans, rice, canned veggies and fruit. There was also a table with fresh produce and fruit that seniors could choose from.
About a dozen local residents volunteer and staff the food bank. Some of them also help out at other distribution points like the food bank in Aspen, which partners with LiftUp.
Both the senior and the low-income programs are open to any Colorado resident. The general program is open to anyone who shows up, and they can select what food is available that is not part of either the senior or low-income distributions.
There are many good healthy products on view as the local residents begin to file into the room after first signing in with volunteer Diane Welter. Welter runs a nonprofit cancer-support organization called Your Friends For Life, headquartered in Basalt with more than 80 volunteers who assist cancer patients from Aspen to Rifle with meals, cleaning, or helping with family members or a pet.
Welter has been a volunteer of the Eagle County Food Bank for “between four and five years,” she says proudly. How did she get involved? “I came when I needed food,” she says.
Helping people in need is the prime mission for Food Bank of the Rockies, and helping local Mid-Valley seniors is a prime mission for Eagle County’s Public Health and Human Services departments.
So how do they get the word out to people who do need food?
“There is a Roaring Fork Valley e-newsletter about food resources,” Dicamillo says. “The numbers of people varies from month to month. The seniors don’t get out as much in the winter. We do have flyers that are sent out by Human Services that list the locations of food banks in Garfield, Eagle and Pitkin counties.”
According to Dicamillo and Rodwick, they are looking for other ways to publicize their programs, and Eagle County will help with transportation if a senior needs that assistance to access the Food Bank.
As local residents move through the room and pick out food items they wish to take, it is easy to notice the syrup, Swiss Miss, sugary cereal and other food stocks that would not be high on any nutritionist’s list.
“The food that we distribute is viewed as supplemental, and it’s not enough food to sustain someone for an entire month,” Rodwick says. “We do have very specific nutrition guides for the government programs, the senior boxes and TEFAP. We have to follow those nutrition guidelines. For the program where the food is donated, and we are trying to give it out for free, mostly it is whatever is donated, and we don’t have a lot of selection in that.”
The donated food comes from distributors and farmers around the Grand Junction area.
Food Bank of the Rockies works toward a goal of getting a certain amount of food in pounds or meals out to the people in the counties they serve. They use certain Feeding America guidelines about percentages of people who are food insecure. When they start seeing that those numbers are being met by local agencies, then they are not needed to bring in the mobile pantries. Currently, Rodwick and the Western Slope branch are working with the Eagle River Valley Food Bank to expand the services they offer in El Jebel. The nature of the expansion is that Eagle River Valley, which extends as far west as Dotsero, would essentially take over the food bank in El Jebel and provide food from their sources instead of Food Bank of the Rockies.
If you need food assistance in the Mid-Valley or are part of an organization that works with people in need, contact Food Bank of the Rockies at www.foodbankrockies.org or (970) 464-1138, ext. 212; or contact Eagle County Human Services at (970) 328-9586.
Food Bank of the Rockies comes to El Jebel the third Wednesday of every month. Doors open at 11:30 a.m.