Jessica Opps has a job, three kids of her own, and two more she takes care of full-time.
So she was thrilled when a friend told her about the Emergency Food Assistance Program — the federal program popularly known as "Commodities" that provides monthly boxes of basics for needy families. El Paso County has 18 pick-up sites for the program, each with its own schedule. But only one site works for Opps: Meadows Park Community Center on Colorado Springs' south side.
So Opps was upset when she dropped by the center Sept. 20 to get a box and was told that this would be the last pick-up at the site. Flummoxed Meadows Park workers had just found out that, due to statewide changes to the program, they would no longer be able to offer Commodities. They weren't sure where else to send Opps.
Brandy Thomas, who works at Meadows Park, said she was concerned about getting information to the hundreds of people who show up twice a month to pick up boxes. She also worried that some clients may not be able to access a new location. Some use wheelchairs to travel a few blocks. Others walk with children. Many, she said, are too weak, poor or busy to even use the bus system.
"We usually make 90 boxes on each [pick-up]," she said, "and we usually go through all of it."
Opps, who wasn't sure she'd be able to access the program anymore, was similarly concerned.
"It is kind of sad," she said, as her small daughter dangled from her neck, "because this stuff helps a lot."
Confusion over the Commodities program is just the latest bump in the road for many of the state's needy. Food stamps are already being cut back due to the expiration of economic stimulus money, meaning an individual who receives the maximum benefit will get $189 in monthly assistance starting in November instead of $200.
Those behind the changes to Commodities, however, say families shouldn't be worried. Commodities isn't going away; in fact, more food will be offered. Lena Harris-Wilson, the state's director of food assistance, says Colorado's program was poorly organized as compared to others, with the state directly contracting with around 100 "vendors." Now, the state will contract with just three major food banks — Care and Share Food Bank for Southern Colorado has the local contract — which will in turn contract with smaller pick-up sites.
Those sites are being carefully selected (and some are being closed), because the state wants to ensure that no food is left sitting around from month-to-month, that sites are conveniently located and not duplicative, and that the sites can offer other products and services, including additional free food from food banks. El Paso County is going from 18 sites to 13 on Monday, Sept. 30.
Jennifer Mariano, programs director for Care and Share, says that changes to the program had to be squeezed into a tight time schedule due to various contract expirations. That's meant shutting down some sites like Meadows Park rather suddenly. But she says that Care and Share will work with sites individually to accommodate clients. The state also plans to send a letter to clients detailing the new locations.
While the changes have thus far been disruptive, Mariano promises this: "In the long run, this is a really good thing."
Following the food
The following sites will no longer have the Commodities program as of Sept. 30:
• Deerfield Hills Community Center, 4290 Deerfield Hills Road
• Meadows Park Community Center, 1943 S. El Paso Ave.
• St. Johns Baptist Church, 903 S. Prospect St.
• The Villa at Sunny Vista, 2480 E. Dale St.
• The Villas at Southgate, 1810 S. Corona Ave.
The following sites will remain open:
• American Charities, 3608 Galley Road, 646-3922: Mondays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
• Connections 4 Life Center, 6436 Hwy. 85/87 Suite U, Fountain, 502-1422: Fridays, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
• Eastern Plains Community Pantry; 701 Fourth St., Calhan, 347-2976: Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
• Ecumenical Social Ministries, 201 N. Weber St., 636-1916: Monday-Friday, 9-11 a.m., 12:30-2:30 p.m.
• Ellicott Helping Hands, 2335 Hwy. 94, Calhan, 683-4724: Tuesdays, 9 a.m. to noon
• Good News Foundation, 125 N. Parkside Drive #100, 638-8985: Tuesdays and Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
• Mercy’s Gate, 5590 N. Nevada Ave., 277-7470: Mondays, 9 a.m. to noon
• Seventh Day Adventist Church, 1305 N. Union Blvd., 634-1682: Mondays, 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
• Silver Key Senior Services, 2250 Bott Ave., 884-2300: Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
• Springs Rescue Mission, 3 W. Las Vegas St., 632-1822: Tuesdays and Thursdays, 1:30-3:30 p.m.; Saturdays, 9 a.m. to noon
• Tri-Lakes Cares, 235 N. Jefferson St., Monument, 481-4864: Mondays and Thursdays, noon to 3 p.m., 6-8 p.m.
• Trinity United Methodist Church; 701 N. 20th St., 633-9295: Tuesdays, 1-3 p.m.
• True Spirit Baptist Church; 5120 Astrozon Blvd., 575-9287: Fridays, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
— J. Adrian Stanley