In fewer than 30 days, tens of thousands of people who have been dangling from the safety net of charity could find themselves in free fall.
They are the hungry of Southern Colorado. They are men, women and, yes, many children, who have scraped by in temporary hard times or long-lasting poverty with the help of Care and Share, the region's only food bank offering locally and nationally donated and purchased food. Care and Share is the hub for feeding the hungry here, the organization that provides much of the groceries needed by food pantries and soup kitchens. In 2007, Care and Share helped about 93,000 people.
But now, it's running out of food.
Sucker-punched by high gas and food prices, increased demand, less assistance from government and food manufacturers, and dwindling supplies from food drives, Care and Share has fewer of the necessities it needs to help feed struggling families. Because cash doesn't go nearly as far these days, Care and Share staff say what they really need is food. Lots of food.
Unless the community donates considerably more than 100,000 pounds of food this month which isn't likely, with no large fundraisers in the works Care and Share will have to start cutting off its regular supply of staple foods to its partner charities. This, after the need for its assistance has grown 15 percent over eight months.
"We're at the breaking point," says Care and Share president and CEO Nicholas Saccaro. "If we don't have a noteworthy drive come in within the next 30 days, we will have to suspend all supply of this food-drive product for our partner agencies until October." The food pantry at Good Shepherd United Methodist Church in Security is already feeling the effects.
The church hands out groceries to well over a thousand people a month, every other week. Good Shepherd has been doing this for about 25 years. But the last time volunteers went to pick up food from Care and Share, they came back with just two pallets instead of their normal six.
It's not as though there's ever been an abundance of food in the Good Shepherd pantry. Volunteers say hungry families sometimes try to cut ahead of others in line to get to the food first, or argue that they should get more than their allotment. The church has even had problems with patrons stealing the church's light bulbs. The desperation is so intense that volunteers monitor the food that people take, and one volunteer sometimes stands outside the bathroom to ration toilet paper.
Bea Hernandez says a few recipients just make the rest look bad. Hernandez volunteers at the food pantry. She also brings home pantry food.
Hernandez and her husband are senior citizens, well past their working years. She has arthritis in her spine. He has diabetes and short-term memory loss, due to an old head injury. The two just scrape by on Social Security.
But they're also taking care of five grandchildren, ages 6 to 11. One, a little boy, is disabled and must subsist on baby food. Hernandez can't even qualify for food stamps to feed the kids, because she doesn't have legal custody of them.
"The pantry here helps us out a lot, because everything is so expensive now," Hernandez says, peering from under a crown of soft, graying curls. "Sometimes here, they have baby food that I'm glad to get, because the handicapped grandson, he eats 85 cans a week."
On food day, the church brims with people like Hernandez.
Paula Bruestle, a 77-year-old widow, says she can't feed herself with only Social Security.
Marlan Fletcher does better. He gets a pension. But after bills, his wife's medical insurance and his medications, there's little left for grocery shopping.
Heather Foster has stayed home to care for her disabled son for years.
"It's almost impossible to find someone willing to baby-sit someone who's 6-foot-4 and has the mentality of a 5-year-old," she says, laughing.
Without working, Foster couldn't make ends meet. It ruined her credit. Recently, her son went to live in a group home, giving her the chance to re-enter the workforce. But with the huge gap in her rsum and bad credit, she has struggled to find work even though she has a bachelor's degree and is using 30 job-search engines.
Foster's learned to make the best of the food bank groceries. She says she can make cottage cheese and other dairy products out of powdered milk.
Another pantry patron, Marlene Lange, injured her back long ago, when she fell on the job. She hasn't been able to work for years, though her husband, Michael Lankins, is employed at a tire store. They live in a trailer in Security, a home Lange is proud to own.
Like many others, Lange and Lankins volunteer at the pantry. Lange likes to call it "God's work." She knows how badly people need the food, because she needs it too. With one child still at home and few economic resources, it's hard to stock the fridge.
"If it wasn't for the food pantry," she says, "I'd probably be sleeping in the streets." Care and Share's warehouse shelves aren't exactly brimming on a recent Thursday afternoon. This is partially because the food bank clears out a lot of products before the end of its fiscal year in June. But it's also because fewer non-perishable donations have been coming in lately.
The majority of the stuff here comes from food manufacturers. It's often food that was rejected because it didn't quite meet production standards, or didn't move on store shelves.
But hurt by the high cost of ingredients, the food industry lately has been more stringent making fewer mistakes and therefore passing off fewer goodies.
When food manufacturers do mess up, or even make a perfectly good product available, Care and Share leaders face a tough decision: Assuming they want the product, can they afford the wildly expensive diesel fuel required to ship it across the country? (About 65 percent of the food that Care and Share brings in each year comes from outside the state, and a single truckload that used to require about $3,500 in fuel now runs as high as $5,500.)
Today, the warehouse holds cases of Cherry Chocolate Diet Dr Pepper, pie crusts, Peeps, artichoke hearts, over-the-counter medications and red-hot pickled sausage. Care and Share is glad to get all of it, but needless to say, none of this exactly equates to a square meal.
The organization usually supplements these odds and ends with what it receives from food drives and the U.S. Department of Agriculture the two sources that provide most of the basics like pasta, rice, canned fruits and vegetables, powdered milk, soups, tuna and peanut butter.
Most large-scale food drives, though done with the help of local businesses happen in the fall and spring, even though summer is a high time of need, since kids who tap into public schools' free and/or reduced lunch and breakfast programs now need three meals a day at home.
Another problem: The USDA cut back on offerings to food banks as Congress considered the most recent farm bill, stressing Care and Share's supplies from fall 2007 until May. The bill finally won approval great news for Care and Share, which will get more food from now on but it didn't happen soon enough. The USDA doesn't plan to boost its shipments to food banks until October.
In the past, the USDA might also have sent out additional agricultural products throughout the year. When supermarkets became glutted with a certain product, prices would fall, and the government would step in and buy the excess to stabilizes prices and help farmers.
But with agricultural products suddenly a hot commodity worldwide, that doesn't happen much anymore.
Care and Share has thrown money, which is earned largely from donations, at buying food to supplement what's missing, but it will soon be out of funds to do that. The money just isn't stretching that far these days. And with more people struggling economically, more have turned to Care and Share for help.
"We made a very conscious choice organizationally to spend as much as we could possibly afford to bring food in," Saccaro says, noting the bank will spend more than $730,000 purchasing food this year, about $250,000 more than last year. "We really need the community to step up." Beyond supplying food to partner agencies, Care and Share runs programs of its own.
One is called Kids Cafe. Kids Cafes are located at places children tend to frequent after school: community centers, YMCAs. They offer healthy snacks and nutritional education meant to combat childhood obesity and Type 2 diabetes.
On Fridays, with parental permission, kids can stop by a Kids Cafe and take home a wheeled backpack stuffed with enough food to feed a family for the weekend.
About 100 kids take advantage of this program, called Send Hunger Packing, but tens of thousands could likely benefit from it in Southern Colorado. Over 100,000 people live in poverty across Care and Share's service area.
Unfortunately, the program isn't likely to expand any time soon. In fact, Lori Kapu, Care and Share's chief programs officer, says the kids already using the program likely won't be able to bring home the same quality foods in the near future.
"The food-drive food not only helps the agencies, but we also take some of that food and supplement those backpacks," she says.
Children are one of the largest groups likely to be hurt by the shortage of food. Nearly 45 percent of the people served by Care and Share are kids. And that number is likely to rise. A 2008 report by the Colorado Children's Campaign found that Colorado had the nation's fastest-growing rate of children living in poverty between 2000 and 2006.
While Care and Share does serve some in the community who are homeless, the vast majority of its patrons are families. In all, 41 percent are working families.
"It's people just like your neighbor," says chief operating officer Alex Edwards, noting that many families rely on the bank for just a few months. "It's people who have fallen on hard times ... in most situations, it's related to a work situation or a health situation."
Well, if soup kitchens and pantries act like retail outlets, Care and Share acts as their wholesaler. It uses a complex network to bring food to southern Colorado and distribute it to 432 charities, which pass it on to families. In its last fiscal year, which ended in June, Care and Share moved about 11.3 million pounds of food.
Founded 33 years ago by a Catholic nun, the local Care and Share is now one arm of America's Second Harvest, a national nonprofit. ASH communicates with food industry partners nationally to create a tally of available food, then passes the list to its food banks.
This is how Care and Share often hears about opportunities to secure free food. Maybe it's a factory with a truckload of corn flakes that are a little too brown for store shelves. Or a pasta plant with a load of spaghetti too close to its expiration date to send to Safeway.
"It's not bad food," says Care and Share president and CEO Nicholas Saccaro. "It's just food that doesn't meet their specifications, so it's stuff that would normally be going in the landfill, and instead we're just finding a good home for it."
Once Care and Share learns what's available, the food bank staffers consider many factors. Is the same product already in stock? Can they afford fuel costs to send a truck to pick it up? Is it a product their patrons want?
One way or another, food-industry shipments provide about 70 percent of Care and Share's inventory. But it's not necessarily the most important food.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, food drives and Care and Share's bulk purchases provide many staples in patrons' diets. Supermarket rejects on produce, bread and dairy add some fresh choices.
In addition to food donations, Care and Share must bring in cash to survive. The food bank spends 94 percent of its money ($16.2 million in fiscal year 2007) on food and food programs. The rest goes to expenses like staffing, fundraising, utilities and storage space; rent for the organization's Springs warehouse currently costs about $300,000 a year.
Care and Share just started building an $8.4 million, 53,000-square-foot warehouse near Constitution Avenue and Powers Boulevard, but it still needs to raise about $1.2 million to complete the project. When that warehouse opens (hopefully by February), it will allow the organization to store more food, including a lot more frozen and fresh goods. It will also redirect the money now spent on rent toward feeding the hungry.
Care and Share earned the highest rating, four stars, from Charity Navigator, an independent charity evaluator, for its last fiscal year.
J. Adrian Stanley
Care and Share warehouse
2520 Aviation Way, Suite 130, 528-1247, careandshare.org
Hours: Monday-Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Colorado Springs Police Department substations
Police Operations Center, 705 S. Nevada Ave., 444-7595
Sand Creek, 4125 Center Park Drive, 444-7270
Stetson Hills, 4110 Tutt Blvd., 444-3140
Falcon, 7850 Goddard St., 444-7240
All open 24 hours.
Entenmann's/Oroweat Bread Thrift Store
4751 Flintridge Drive, 528-8070
Hours: Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Rocky Top Resources, Inc.
1755 E. Las Vegas St., 579-9103, rockytop.us
Accepting donations: Saturday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Drop off personal yard waste for free with a donation to Care and Share.
El Paso County Solid Waste
3255 Akers Drive, 520-7878, elpasoco.com
Hours: Monday-Thursday, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Challenger Homes Model Homes food drive
July 1 through Sept. 30
Challenger Homes Corporate Office, 13530 Northgate Estates Drive
Hours: Monday-Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Drop-offs also available (call for hours) at:
Village Center at Woodmoor, 17786 Mining Way
Northgate Estates, 13670 Northgate Estates Drive
Grey Hawk Estates, 913 Spectrum Loop
Wildwood Ridge, 11991 Ironsides Drive
Stetson Ridge Highlands, 5706 Caithness Place
For every item you donate, Challenger will also give $1 to Care and Share (up to $10,000). For more information and hours, call 598-5192 or check mychallengerhomes.com.
Need food for your family?
Call 211 for information about how to get help.