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As prices on everything from rent to gas to groceries continue to rise because of sky-high inflation, community organizations like food banks and food pantries—as well as the individuals they serve—are facing increasingly dire situations.
For instance, Food Bank of the Rockies—which distributes groceries to food pantries, nonprofits, and people in need through a variety of programs in Colorado and Wyoming—is now spending more than $1.3 million on food each month. That is more than triple what it was spending in 2019, says Aditi Desai, the food bank’s spokeswoman. Inflation is responsible for some of that increase, but there are other factors at play, too. Freight and shipping costs are also more expensive, due largely to ongoing supply chain issues. Those problems are also affecting manufacturers, which are the food bank’s main source of large-scale donations. Overall, contributions are down across the board.
Meanwhile, the need for food assistance is still higher than pre-COVID levels across the organization’s service area because of inflation and the ongoing pandemic, Desai says. Many of the 600-plus food pantries and nonprofits that Food Bank of the Rockies works with in Colorado have seen an uptick in the number of people seeking food assistance. As a whole, Food Bank of the Rockies is distributing 34 percent more food than it did before the pandemic. People are also becoming increasingly anxious as prices continue to rise—some are already opting to cut back on more expensive groceries, such as meat. “People are nervous again, similar to the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Kate Budd, Food Bank of the Rockies’ mobile pantry representative. “There’s a lot of uncertainty again with food access.”
The food bank is doing what it can to get by, which means picking up and delivering donations as soon as they become available; working with food banks across the country to take advantage of their overstocked items; and proactively buying larger quantities to account for shortages or delivery delays, among other adaptations. “We continue to purchase items that are nutritious, fresh, culturally responsive, and needed and desired by our community, regardless of cost,” Desai says.
The situation is similar at Outreach United Resource Center (OUR Center), a Longmont-based nonprofit that offers a wide array of services and programs to support people in need throughout the St. Vrain Valley, including rent and utility assistance, child care, financial skills classes, employment referrals, and a community closet, among others. It also serves meals at its community cafe and offers groceries, clothing, and personal care items at its community market.
Donations are decreasing, but community needs are increasing, says Marc Cowell, OUR Center’s executive director. Each week, between 10 and 15 new families, on average, are coming to OUR Center for the very first time, he says. Some people are moving in with extended family because they can’t afford rent, or they’re moving out of the area altogether because they just can’t see a future here because of the high cost of living; other households are maxing out their credit cards just to meet their basic needs and pay bills. “At the beginning of the year, many of these families had a very tight household budget and were making it work,” Cowell says. “Now, because of the rapidly rising cost of living in our community, these families are facing very difficult decisions such as skipping meals to save enough money to pay for gas to get to work.”
To keep up with demand, OUR Center is purchasing between $3,000 to $5,000 worth of food and other items for its programs each month, which is an “unprecedented” level of spending, Cowell says. Like many employers along the Front Range, OUR Center is also struggling to offer pay increases so that its employees can keep up with the increasing cost of living caused by inflation, Cowell says. “I have a talented team that is very committed to our mission and helping our community,” he says. “However, that passion and dedication can only go so far. If the trends continue, we will soon fall behind and risk losing some amazing team members.”
Though he tries to be optimistic, Cowell also needs to take a longer view of rising costs—and, unfortunately, things aren’t looking good. “As community needs continue to increase, our struggles to keep up with this need will inevitably grow,” he says. “I fear that our struggle to keep up with the community need will only get worse. I do not see a light at the end of the tunnel.”
If you’re in a position to help, below are several ways to support these organizations and ensure that fellow Coloradans can get the food and other community services they need.
Give money. If your finances allow, the best—and, likely, simplest—way to help is to donate money. At Food Bank of the Rockies, every $1 donation is enough to pay for four meals because of the group’s grocery rescue program, government allotments, food donations, and lower bulk pricing from agricultural and retail partners. “A financial gift is the most impactful way to support our mission to nourish people facing hunger,” Desai says.
Gift cards to retailers are also handy, but many organizations prefer cash because it provides more flexibility and can be used to order bulk food from a variety of vendors, Cowell says.
Volunteer. Your time and skills are also incredibly valuable. Individuals and groups of volunteers (such as a work team or social club) can help by volunteering at the Food Bank of the Rockies distribution center six days a week. The needs change daily—but no matter what tasks you perform as a volunteer at Food Bank of the Rockies’ facilities, you’ll be helping the organization get “enough food out the door to meet the increased need,” Desai says.
OUR Center volunteers can pick up shifts at its market, cafe, closet, and warehouse during normal business hours on weekdays.
Donate food. Especially for food pantries—the sites that actually give food and meals directly to community members—donating food is an effective way to help right now. As inflation has gone up, many of these organizations have seen a steady decline in donations, which means they’re low on so many of the vital items they share with people on a regular basis.
OUR Center, for instance, needs different forms of protein—peanut butter, ground beef, chicken, and the like—as well as dried or canned beans. It and many other organizations regularly update their websites or social media pages to describe exactly what types of food they’re low on at the moment, so bookmark those and check them regularly, especially right before donating.
Don’t forget other essentials. Many food pantries also support community members in other ways, so if your budget allows, consider donating personal hygiene products, baby care items, and other household essentials. Families are in need of diapers and baby formula, which is experiencing a shortage right now, Cowell says.