Food pantries, more important than ever, face challenges in time of COVID-19 

Feeding the need

click to enlarge Shelly, 69, stands outside the Manitou Springs Community Pantry at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church. - FAITH MILLER
  • Faith Miller
  • Shelly, 69, stands outside the Manitou Springs Community Pantry at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church.

On this hot April day, a few dozen Manitou Springs residents line up outside St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church. They stand in spaces marked off by sidewalk chalk to ensure 6 feet of physical separation, some wearing medical masks, homemade face coverings or bandanas.

Some, including those experiencing homelessness, have been coming to the Manitou Springs Community Pantry for months. For others, the experience is relatively new.

It’s April 8, four weeks after Gov. Jared Polis declared a statewide emergency due to the novel coronavirus. Three weeks ago, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment closed bars, restaurants, theaters and gyms. That’s about the same time the stock market plummeted.

“It’s scary,” says 25-year-old Ben, who declined to give his last name for privacy reasons. “We definitely had a big upheaval, me and my mom — we both lost our jobs, basically.”

Ben was furloughed from his research position, and his mother’s cleaning company also placed her on unpaid leave, he explains. The food is also for Ben’s younger siblings, who live with them both.

“My mom’s older, so it’s been scary,” he says. “I definitely stopped going everywhere, but now we’re just mainly hoping we can get back to work.”

In the past few weeks, the number of overall applications for assistance benefits — including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — has increased by more than 70 percent at the El Paso County Department of Human Services, according to department spokesperson Kristina Iodice.

SNAP, a federally funded program for low-income households, “is not intended to cover a household’s entire food budget, which is why food banks are an important part of the safety net,” Iodice says in an email.

To meet the community’s needs, organizations large and small are stepping up to the plate.

“St. Andrew’s is not doing this by ourselves,” says Rev. Susie Merrin, the rector at St. Andrew’s. She names New Life Manitou Springs,
which contributes volunteers, as an important partner in the weekly food pantry distribution. Care and Share Food Bank for Southern Colorado supplies the food.

click to enlarge Food pantry items at the Manitou Springs Community Pantry are set out on tables, bagged by volunteers and handed out at the door. - FAITH MILLER
  • Faith Miller
  • Food pantry items at the Manitou Springs Community Pantry are set out on tables, bagged by volunteers and handed out at the door.

“We normally serve around 45 people every Wednesday and the first week after the virus controls were put into effect, that was doubled,” Merrin says. “We had 96 the second week.”

In the third week, that number dropped back down to about 45, she says, but that’s because many of the seniors who used to pick up food after attending a donation-based lunch at the church are now self-isolating at home.

That’s not to say the pantry doesn’t serve people from all age groups, including some older newcomers.

Shelly, 69, who also declined to give her last name, stops by to pick up food for her three-generation household. She originally moved to Manitou Springs from Hawaii so she could help her daughter — who just lost a restaurant job — take care of the grandchildren.

“That was a year ago,” she says. “Who would have known that something like this would have happened while we are alive?”

Wearing a camouflage bandana, Shelly pushes the grocery bags in her walker to bring home. She likes to pass out items the grandkids don’t like to unsheltered people she sees on the way.

“My daughter … comes up with money to go buy some groceries, and I don’t have any money for groceries, so I’m so thankful for the food pantries,” Shelly says.

In the wake of the pandemic, some of the smaller local pantries affiliated with Care and Share — many of which are normally run by older volunteers, who face greater risk from the coronavirus — have made the difficult choice to close.

In those locations, volunteers “may have felt that it wasn’t a risk that they and their family were willing to take,” says Care and Share CEO Lynne Telford. “But our other partners have really stepped up.”

Telford says the nonprofit, which serves 31 counties in southern Colorado, strives to keep its website updated as often as possible with accurate information about which pantries are open.

Meanwhile, at Care and Share’s Colorado Springs warehouse, volunteers work in smaller groups than normal and must wear masks. All volunteers must now be at least 16 years old. Lately, though, Care and Share has found adequate staff and volunteers to meet the need at its warehouse, Telford says.

“Some of our regular volunteers have decided that it’s too risky for them,” she says, “but when we put out a call to the community for volunteers, they always come through to us. …The challenge is having them in three different locations throughout our building. It’s not our normal flow, but it’s what we need to do to keep people safe.”

Besides endangering older volunteers, the pandemic poses another challenge to Care and Share’s operations.

Grocery stores normally supply a large portion of recently expired or near-expired food to Care and Share, and the Colorado Springs-based nonprofit picks up those leftovers from big-box stores like Safeway and King Soopers nearly every day. But as people stocking up (and panic buying) empty store shelves, that source is quickly drying up.

“Obviously, [grocery stores] don’t have that much to give us at this time,” Telford says. “…So because some of our donation lines have diminished for a while, we’ve been out on the open market buying food — out on the wholesale market.”

Telford says past responses to natural disasters such as floods and fires have prepared Care and Share well for the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, the nonprofit is buying more food than ever.

“We’re purchasing, like, 10 times as much food as we would normally purchase,” she says. “…There’s just so much more coming in through purchasing than we have seen ever in the history of our organization.”

Also in line outside the Manitou Springs Community Pantry is 29-year-old Jonathan Guy, who says he’s not too concerned about the virus, though he doesn’t have a home in the traditional sense.

“I don’t really even think about it, to be honest,” Guy says while eating a peach. “…I got the flu back in February in [the El Paso County Criminal Justice Center] and I made it through that like, only crying a little bit, so when corona hits, I think I can handle it.”

But hygiene is a big problem among the local homeless population, Guy says.

“Everybody’s taking a shower either at the [Salvation Army Shelter & Services at] RJ Montgomery or the Springs Rescue Mission — and I mean everybody — and it’s very not clean,” he says.

That’s the same view expressed by Kristy Milligan, CEO of nonprofit Westside Cares. Her organization provides food, housing and health care assistance to Westside residents in need.

With gyms closed, Milligan points out, people without housing can no longer use those locations to shower.

“People experiencing homelessness have struggled for days or weeks or months or years in exactly these circumstances, and they are incredibly resourceful and incredibly smart,” she adds. “...We actually stand to learn from people who have done poverty for a long time, and I hope we do.”

As an organization, Westside Cares is also feeling the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. The nonprofit normally operates six food pantries west of Interstate 25, but has shrunk those down to two for the time being. (Westside Cares has just one full-time staff member, and that’s CEO Milligan.)

At the same time, one of the pantries remaining open, Wednesdays at Westside Community Center, is seeing an influx of new clients.

“The first week of the pantry in March we served 14 families and 35 people,” Milligan says. “The last week in March, we served 69 families and about 218 people. And we are seeing, every week, 50 percent of the people who are presenting for food support have not been to this pantry before.”

The nonprofit, which buys some food at a discount from Care and Share, was 50 percent over budget in that area for the month of March, Milligan says, and she doesn’t expect the need to go away anytime soon.

"We are aware that this is going to be a marathon,” she says. “It’s not a sprint.”

Where to get food:

Visit careandshare.org/find food to generate a list of locations near a specific address in southern Colorado.

Westside Cares is currently operating two food pantries for Westside residents:

• Wednesdays from 1 to 3 p.m. at Westside Community Center in Colorado Springs
• Second, fourth and fifth Tuesdays from 6 to 8 p.m. at Church in the Wildwood in Green Mountain Falls

Silver Key's Connections Cafe locations are distributing five to seven frozen meals for seniors 60 and older weekly. Visit silverkey.org for more information.

Salvation Army, Catholic Charities of Central Colorado and Fuel Church have launched a food truck serving hot meals through the month of April. Locations and times:

• Mondays and Fridays from 1 to 3 p.m. at Sacred Heart Church, 2030 W. Colorado Ave.

• Wednesdays from 1 to 3 p.m. at Westside Cares, 2808 W. Colorado Ave.

Several local nonprofits are collaborating to offer food delivery for seniors 60 and older. Call Pikes Peak United Way at 2-1-1 for assistance.

Mercy's Gate is providing pre-packed food boxes for El Paso County residents. Visit 
mercysgatecs.org/covid-19-update for hours and information.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include a list of food resources that also ran in print, and to add Mercy's Gate to that list.

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