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Hunger Pains: Demand At Colorado Food Bank Reflects Rising Numbers Of Food Insecure

Ruben Marez prepares an assortment of snack items for one day of distribution at the Food Bank for Larimer County's Loveland location.
Robyn Vincent/KUNC
Ruben Marez prepares an assortment of snack items for one day of distribution at the Food Bank for Larimer County's Loveland location.

The Food Bank for Larimer County’s warehouse in Loveland looks like a factory assembly line. People are busy preparing and packing provisions for when the doors open in an hour.

"Cookies, protein bars, coffee – a little of everything," says volunteer Ruben Marez. "I kind of like to mix and match."

Every year Marez travels to volunteer with the Red Cross and help with disaster relief. This year, he decided he was needed close to home and began volunteering at the onset of the pandemic.

"I just like to help, you know? I'm retired from the Army, put in 20 years," he says.

One look outside the warehouse and the need for volunteers like Marez becomes clear. A long line of cars snakes around the building. People have been waiting for at least a couple hours for the drive-up distribution to start.

Staff say lines are normal, that people get an early start so they can head to work afterward. Still, the need is stunning. "We have literally doubled the number of individuals we're serving in this drive-up distribution between March and November," says food bank head Amy Pezzani.

Today Pezzani and her staff and volunteers will serve roughly 600 families in a matter of five hours.

This food bank is part of the Feeding America Network. The national nonprofit says that during the pandemic, one in six adults and one in four children are likely to face food insecurity.

Meeting this need hasn't been easy. The team started operating their two locations on alternate days because their new system, due to the pandemic, requires massive help. Pezzani and her team had to completely overhaul the operation from in-store shopping to drive-up distribution. Inside is the assembly line — where Marez and several others pack up groceries. Outside, people check-in clients, direct traffic, and roll carts brimming with groceries out to each vehicle.

At 10 a.m., staff members awaken their ipads and stand outside to check in motorists. Drivers wait roughly 30 minutes to pull up to the finish line, where they receive food. That's where Barb Landeck is. She rolls down her window to chat and explains that in recent months, she started leaning on the food bank for the first time.

"I am a substitute teacher and there are no substitute jobs, so I have not had a job since March, and the food bank has been my lifeline," Landeck says.

Down the line, Cindy Gates sits in an SUV with her son. She lives with high-risk family members and had to stop working her job as a nursing assistant.

"The pandemic has made it very difficult. And there's no resources out there for a lot of people other than the food bank," Gates says. "And so it's like you don't want to do it because you keep thinking other people need it and other people are needier than you. But then you reach this point. It's like... I have to."

A few cars ahead, Kyle Gomez is waiting to pick up food for his 82-year-old mother. He's her caretaker. Before the pandemic, he also worked a landscaping job. At that time, he was visiting the food bank once a month. Now he's here weekly.

"If it wasn't for the food bank, I'm not kidding you. The food bank and some other people helping,” Gomez says.

Food stamps and charities like the House of Neighborly Services have also been a godsend for Gomez’s mom, he says. “So we're managing to get by. But, you know, I feel sorry for some people that have kids and big families."

One of those big families is nearby in a navy minivan. Carla Espinosa is here with her mother. She says she didn't start visiting the food bank until her parents lost work due to the pandemic. Now she's here "every two weeks, really."

She depends on the food bank to feed her parents, her two younger siblings, older sister and her one-year-old daughter.

The food bank's Paul Donnelly is nearby listening to some of these conversations. He points out that these lines don’t offer a full picture of who is in need. They only represent the people who are mobile, have reliable transportation.

"There's a whole subset of folks who can't get out, don't have transportation," Donnelly says.

So the food bank started taking on deliveries. They partnered with Colorado State University when classes were on pause due to the pandemic. When school resumed, the food bank built its own system. Donnelly stresses the service is limited to roughly 500 deliveries a month.

"And that's a lot for the food bank, which is not built for delivery," he says. "We're built for distribution, like we're seeing here today."

In other words, it's hard to meet the full need these days. And food bank staff say that need will persist for a long time.

“This is not going to end when folks are vaccinated,” the food bank’s Pezzani says. “We know from our experience during the Great Recession that the economy will lag behind folks getting vaccinated and [businesses] opening back up. And certainly the folks that are coming to see us will be a little farther behind than other people to begin with. So we're in this for at least another year and a half, two years.”

That means organizations like the food bank need the community to continue to respond and support its work “so that we can meet the need,” Pezzani says.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2021 KUNC. To see more, visit KUNC.

Robyn Vincent
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