La Plata County organizations are brainstorming new ways to tackle food insecurity for residents.
Local food banks saw an increase in the number of people in need of food assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic, and in some cases, the elevated need hasn’t gone away. In response, local groups such as Fort Lewis College and the Durango Food Bank, are finding new ways to connect residents with services.
“So many working families are just struggling to make ends meet. There is never enough money left after covering basic necessities,” said Sarah Smith, executive director of the Durango Food Bank. “These food insecure residents are truly our neighbors. They are working and doing their best to cover their bills, but just have a shortfall at different times of the year.”
The Durango Food Bank is now operating a self-select food pantry, which allows clients to choose food items for themselves rather than receiving pre-prepared food boxes.
One shopper, a 26-year-old resident near Ignacio who declined to be named, said she uses the food bank for baby formula. Her 4-month-old son, who is allergic to milk, needs a special formula that can cost more than $700 a month, she said.
Some of her family members are also using food assistance. One person is on oxygen full time as a result of COVID-19 and can’t work, she said.
She declined to be named because “it’s embarrassing being publicized for needing help,” she said.
The food bank’s self-select pantry helps people choose foods that fit dietary restrictions and prevents food from being wasted. It’s also a way to give people autonomy while receiving food assistance, particularly for families who have not relied on food services before, Smith said.
“We want our neighbors to feel like human beings who are being treated with kindness and dignity during their times of need,” Smith said. “We believe that food is not a privilege, it is a basic human right and we are so happy to have such amazing resources and support in this community.”
The “unprecedented” client demand in 2020 has leveled off at the Durango Food Bank, although it is still serving record-breaking numbers, Smith said.
But the sky high numbers are still happening at Pine River Shares, which offers food bank services for residents in eastern La Plata County.
In June, the nonprofit served 2,400 individuals; in July, 2,600.
“It’s very high. We expected the numbers to drop off after people got back to work, but we are not seeing that,” said Pam Wilhoite, Pine River Shares executive director.
La Plata County commissioners helped create more than 100 food boxes for Pine River Valley community members while volunteering with Pine River Shares in Bayfield, said Commissioner Matt Salka.
“In a couple hours, they served 100 families with necessary food. (The) food insecurity people are having in our county, it’s pretty shocking actually,” said Commissioner Marsha Porter-Norton. “Those of us that have food and know where our food is going to come from every week or every month is something that cannot be taken for granted, especially a lot of families and seniors.”
FLC recently submitted a request for $945,000 in federally earmarked funding to remodel its campus food pantry, said Rebecca Clausen, chairperson and an associate professor of sociology and human services.
In a survey of almost 1,000 FLC students, 44% said they experienced food insecurity in the previous 30 days. The survey was completed in January 2020 and did not include COVID-19 impacts, she said.
The food pantry, called the Grub Hub, was housed in a small office in Jones Hall. Now, it is centered geographically at the Student Union Building. But the space, formerly used for information technology services, is not set up for food processing.
The federal funding, if approved, would be used to remodel the pantry with kitchen appliances, such as sinks and stainless steel counters, and to provide a more welcoming environment for students.
“It’s centering it geographically, but it’s also centering it to destigmatize it,” Clausen said. “Our society has it built in that it’s a personal failure. You don’t work hard enough, you can’t get a job. It’s somehow your fault.”
But Clausen looks at it from a different perspective: What is it about our social structures, like stagnant wages or the commodification of food, that contributes to food insecurity?
The new Grub Hub space will celebrate the pantry and the students who are helping other students, she said.
Sen. John Hickenlooper furthered the request at the federal level. Although it’s still being considered, the appropriations could be finalized as soon as October.