Food Bank of the Rockies, partners continue to face high demand for services

The day before Thanksgiving, Lana Lopes was “in leggings and sweats” as she got ready to start loading boxes of food into the hundreds of vehicles expected to line up at the Colorado Community Church in Aurora.

Lopes is the coordinator of the church’s food pantry distribution, which takes place the second and fourth Wednesdays every month.

“You’d be amazed at how much food we put in those boxes,” Lopes said. “Those boxes are heavy. We get a good workout.”

The loads have been particularly heavy through the coronavirus pandemic. The number of cars driving up have ranged from 250 to 300 per distribution. After a dip as restrictions on businesses and events eased, Lopes said the numbers have spiked again.

Similar to the Food Bank of the Rockies, which partners with the church and more than 800 other organizations in Colorado and Wyoming, Lopes sees many people who never went to a food pantry before the pandemic.

“During the height of COVID, about 40% of the people served had never needed food assistance before then. We still continue to see people who had not previously turned to a food bank or pantry for help,” said Erin Pulling, president and CEO of the Denver-based Food Bank of the Rockies.

And like the Colorado Community Church, the food bank continues to respond to a high demand. Pulling said the Food Bank of the Rockies’ distribution volumes shot up 55% to 60% at the height of the pandemic and are hovering between 10% and 15% above pre-pandemic levels.

The latest challenge for food banks and pantries is rising inflation and increasing food prices. Food banks across the country are feeling the effects of inflation and supply chain disruptions, The Associated Press reported.

“We’ve seen our price of ground beef, which is such a staple, increase 27% in the last year. Vegetable oil is up 54%. Canned fruit is up 30%,” Pulling said.

Freight costs are up 25%. Pulling said the food bank has become more efficient, enabling it to distribute enough food for four families for every dollar donated because it buys food by the truckload. Much of the food is donated.

“But still we need funds to bring that food in, for the freight costs and the fuel and our labor and inventorying that food and getting it into our distribution system,” Pulling said.

The Farmers to Families Food Box program, started by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2020, ended in May. Pulling said the program supplied about 30% of the food bank’s provisions for a year.

“The net effect of all those factors has meant a more than tripling of what we are spending on food. We are now spending nearly $1 million every month on food, which is triple what we were spending in 2019,” Pulling said.

The food bank ordered 7,000 turkeys and nearly 6,000 turkey breasts for this year’s Thanksgiving. Those along with the trimmings were distributed to hundreds of food distribution centers and pantries.

Pulling said the food bank is also working to distribute more fresh produce and “culturally responsive food.”

A major boost has been financial and technical help from Google. The Food Bank of the Rockies is one of 20 food assistance organizations nationwide to receive a $50,000 grant from the tech giant.

Google has also worked with the food bank for the past year to help optimize its delivery routes and give technological support. The company’s chief business officer, Philipp Schindler, said in a blog that Google formed a team to work on issues of food waste and food insecurity, which have been compounded during the coronavirus crisis.

Google has expanded information about food banks and pantries in Google Search and Maps and developed new business profiles for food banks and soup kitchens. Another initiative aims to make information about the federal  Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program easier to find by providing links to state eligibility guidelines and applications through a search of “SNAP benefits” or the name of the local program.

“That’s a very impactful grant at a time when Food Bank of the Rockies is depending on community support and financial gifts more than we ever have before,” Pulling said of the Google money. “That will enable us to distribute 200,000 meals.”

The grants recognize food banks that are innovative and Google reviewed hundreds of nonprofits to choose the recipients, Emily Ma, head of the company’s Food for Good, said in a statement.

“The Food Bank of the Rockies has consistently adopted new and innovative ways to get food to people who need it and we are proud to support their work,” Ma added.

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