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Demand at Denver food banks is higher than ever

Michael Braithwaite, The Denver Post on

Published in News & Features

Facing high demand caused at least in part by the influx of migrants to the city, Denver nonprofit food distributors are cutting services in an attempt to equitably disperse food resources.

But these adjustments come not out of strategy but rather necessity, as a system that was already collapsing is now under far more stress, said Juan Sebastian Olivares, the mobile outreach coordinator for Hunger Free Colorado, a statewide food advocacy nonprofit.

Metro Caring, an anti-hunger organization featuring a fresh food market downtown, saw nearly 5,000 visits in January 2024, almost double the number recorded in the same month a year prior, said the organization’s Communications & Marketing Specialist Brandon McKinley. With wait times for a market appointment stretching as long as six weeks, the new clients instead turned to the organization’s emergency bags, filled with ready-to-go food items, for immediate sustenance.

But what was supposed to be an emergency solution became more popular than fresh food appointments, McKinley said, as visitors routinely sought out a few days’ worth of short-term food options in the bags rather than waiting for a chance to get a week’s worth of healthier food at the market. To combat this trend, Metro Caring will pause distribution of the bags at the end of February, though McKinley noted that the agency does not have a definitive timeline for how long the pause would last.

“Sometimes those bags were not filled with enough variety or quality of food that would last folks even a couple of days,” McKinley said. “The community has shared with us that the (market) model is better, more dignified and more equitable than just handing out bags of food that people may or may not want to use.”

Community members are eligible to shop in the market every month, McKinley said.

Losing a resource for immediate food aid is part of a larger issue concerning Denver food distributors, said Olivares, which were lacking adequate food resources and a consistent workforce to distribute them even before the influx of migrants to the city.

“There are too many immigrants that are requesting help,” Olivares said. “Before that, the food banks and food pantries (already) had limited resources.”

The end of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program emergency food stamp allotments in March 2023 made it harder for many low-income Coloradans to buy groceries, and, in addition to food inflation and cost of living increases, forced more to turn to food banks and pantries for help, said Erin Pulling, president and CEO of Food Bank of the Rockies, a nonprofit that mainly distributes food to over 800 local organizations in Colorado and Wyoming.

 

The food bank has seen a drastic increase in demand since the program ended, Pulling said. The bank is now outright purchasing one-third of its distributed food, spending over $1.5 million per month to supplement a donation pipeline that has not kept up with the soaring demand.

To keep up with the growing demand from the migrants coming into the Denver area, the bank began creating and distributing its own emergency bags in August 2023, Pulling said. Since then, the organization has spent nearly $100,000 on over 15,000 bags filled with shelf-stable ingredients meant to serve as meal preparation for migrants without access to kitchens.

Although the Food Bank of the Rockies has been spending more than usual on food, the organization has not yet been forced to remove any of its other services to accommodate the extra expenditures, Pulling said.

“What it has meant is we are more dependent on philanthropic income than we ever have been before,” Pulling said. “We’re depending on the generosity of the general public to make financial gifts to make this possible.”

The lack of resources extends to the city level as well. While city shelters serve meals three times per day to those housed inside, the influx of migrants brought shelter capacity to an all-time peak of 4,900 people in mid-January, said Jon Ewing, marketing and communications specialist for Denver Human Services. But while the city saw 300 arrivals per day at the peak of the influx, those numbers have since subsided.

City officials are now encouraging eligible migrants to sign up for work authorization, hoping to discharge people from the shelters into more sustainable living situations, Ewing said.

“I’m enormously appreciative of any of the food banks who have stepped up to help folks,” Ewing said. “When they’re feeling the strain, we’re feeling the strain. I think we’re all feeling the strain of this response right now.”

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