Denver food banks brace for demanding new year — The Denver VOICE

Across the city, food banks faced significant challenges stemming from the pandemic. Like other food businesses, they struggled to mitigate the impacts of inflation and rising food costs. Meanwhile, food banks saw an increase in demand, unlike other years, as the pandemic caused more people to experience food instability.  

Erin Pulling, chief executive of Food Bank of the Rockies, which serves the Denver metro area and most of northern Colorado, told Denver Voice that meeting this increased demand proved to be the organization’s biggest success and its greatest challenge last year. 

“Food banks and food pantries have increased distributions more than we could have imagined,” Pulling said. “What that has meant for Food Bank of the Rockies is that we are spending a lot more on our food purchasing. We’ve had to triple the amount of money we’re spending on food just since 2019.”

Food Bank of the Rockies said in its annual report that it spent upwards of $1 million per month to provide food to local communities through its more than 800 partner organizations in both Colorado and Wyoming.  

Meanwhile, the organization measured a significant increase in demand for food increased across its 53-county service area. Over the last year, demand rose 50 % per month when compared to historical averages with some months topping 80%, the report said. 

Still, Food Bank of the Rockies distributes more than 110 million pounds of food, or more than 89.5 million meals, to people in need last year. This is despite food costs outside of the home rising by 6.7 % in Denver over the last 12 months, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

The organization was also able to expand its culturally responsive food program throughout its service area, giving recipients a way to connect with their loved ones if they cannot be together, Pulling said. The program offers regional items like pinto beans, teff, masa, and Blue Bird flour to its clientele. 

To Thai Nguyen, who runs Denver’s Kaizen Food Rescue, a partner organization for Food Bank of the Rockies, the culturally responsive food program also helps to increase healthy food options in communities that do not have many nutritious options. 

Kaizen is a free market that offers fresh ingredients to its clientele, many of which are sourced from local farmer’s markets, Nguyen said. The food rescue has also partnered with more than 20 local organizations to build out its distribution network. 

Before the pandemic, Nguyen said Kaizen would typically serve between 150 and 200 families per day. During the pandemic, that number jumped to between 350 and 500, as many families began to experience food insecurity. 

According to the latest data from the Census Bureau, more than 136,000 households in Colorado report not having enough food to eat because they can’t afford it. That total includes more than 40,000 households with children.  

This increase in demand meant that Kaizen needed to secure more funds to expand. The organization received a grant from Jefferson County through the federal CARES Act and has expanded its donor base, Nguyen said. However, the organization is looking for new ways to build capacity and sustainability as federal pandemic aid dollars are drying up. 

At the same time, Nguyen said she wants to focus on giving Kaizen’s volunteers more time to rest. Kaizen’s network has grown considerably since the pandemic, but Nguyen said she wants to take a more holistic approach to meet the upcoming year’s demands. Right now, Kaizen is averaging 23 food distribution events per month, with as many as three events being held on the same day. 

“It was the community voicing their opinion and asking us to do more that really forced us to make these changes,” Nguyen said. “And I don’t see us going back to “normal” any time soon.”