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Food banks see donations drop as need stays steady

Food stamp cuts, tax code changes, cultural shifts trickle down to aid organizations

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Despite a strong economy and low unemployment, need is staying steady at Denver-area food banks. At the same time, some food banks are seeing donations beginning to slip, and looming government action could spell trouble.

“We’re a vital safety net,” said Todd McPherson, the marketing and outreach director for Integrated Family Community Services, one of the larger local aid organizations, serving much of the south metro area. “When people lose a job, or are dealing with issues like domestic violence or illness, we’re there to help them rebuild by providing resources like food and shelter.”

IFCS currently has about 16,000 people on its rolls, McPherson said, who use the organization for things like food, school supplies, or emergency assistance with bills or rent.

“That’s not an unusual number of people for us, although sometimes it can climb as high as 20,000,” McPherson said.

Meanwhile, donations are decreasing, which McPherson believes is partly attributable to changes in the federal tax code that took effect this year, increasing the size of the standard deduction for charitable giving.

“People don’t have as much of an incentive to give anymore,” McPherson said. “Also, at the community level, religious congregations and fraternal service organizations are shrinking or dying off, and that causes donations to dwindle as well.”

Give me your hungry

Other funding sources are on the wane.

“County-level and corporate grants are starting to dry up,” said Patti Carr, president of Neighbor Outreach of Colorado, which runs a pair of food banks in Thornton. “Food banks help people from having to choose between paying for rent, prescriptions and food. The need hasn’t changed much in the past few years.”

Many of Colorado’s food banks are supported by Food Bank of the Rockies, a sprawling network headquartered in Denver that forges alliances with corporate grocers and food distributors to supply more than 600 food assistance programs statewide.

“Make no mistake, hunger is down in Colorado in recent years,” said Janie Gianotsos, the director of marketing and community relations for Food Bank of the Rockies. “But recent cuts to the federal food stamp program place a higher burden on us.”

High day-care and housing costs fuel hunger on the Front Range, Gianotsos said.

“Parents working more than one job often still struggle to feed their kids after paying rent,” she said. “Around one in six kids in Colorado go hungry. The elderly and disabled are hurting as well.”

Gianotsos said her organization is also concerned about a recent federal proposal to further slash food stamp benefits and make up the difference with prepackaged food boxes to be distributed to recipients.

“We couldn’t afford to distribute those,” Gianotsos said. “How do you get them to rural people? If they live up in the mountains somewhere? How do you ensure it’s all food the recipient can eat? It’s not a wise decision.”

Food fights

Not everyone is happy with Food Bank of the Rockies’ stewardship of donations in the metro area.

Food Bank of the Rockies signs up smaller agencies as members, who pay dues and can buy non-perishable items at reduced cost. They also provide perishable items like produce for free to member agencies. Another program, called Food Rescue, connects food banks with grocery stores, allowing them to directly pick up produce rather than waiting for it to get sorted back through Food Bank of the Rockies’ system first.

Agencies that don’t join, however, can see their relationships with grocers cut off.

“Honestly, our inventory is lower than we’re comfortable with now,” said Diane Roth, a volunteer with the Parker Task Force, which provides food and other services for residents in the Parker, Franktown and Elizabeth area. “We used to have a relationship with Costco and King Soopers, but they’ve signed exclusive contracts with Food Bank of the Rockies, so we don’t get anything from them anymore. We’re disappointed, and it’s a concern.”

Roth said they could become a Food Bank of the Rockies member — which costs $25 a month — but haven’t seen the need, as their existing food drives have proven sufficient.

“It’s frustrating, though, watching food leave the community when we’re already here,” Roth said.

David Clifton Ministries in Lakewood, meanwhile, is watching its shelves go bare as most of the grocers around them have signed exclusive contracts with Food Bank of the Rockies.

“Our pastor doesn’t agree with paying for free donations,” said Tamara Williams, a longtime volunteer. “It’s really crappy that somebody’s taking free donations and charging for it.”

Gianotsos said Food Bank of the Rockies’ contracts with grocery stores are a result of a push by big grocery chains themselves, to ensure that food leaving their stores is handled safely and with accountability.

“Stores wanted to go with food banks that were certified by Feeding America, which is a national nonprofit that oversees food banks,” Gianotsos said. “We have to meet very strict requirements, and we’re audited and inspected. We’ve got refrigerated trucks, and all our people have undergone food safety training.”

Gianotsos said their oversight ensures that donated food actually goes to people in need, and that the agency offers food safety training to member agencies and often donates equipment like freezers. She said Food Bank of the Rockies also has liaisons who work with stores and restaurants to maximize donations. She added that member agencies pay pennies per pound of food, and that Food Bank of the Rockies operates at a net loss and is funded by donations and mostly staffed by volunteers.

“At the end of the day, this is about the clients,” Gianotsos said. “They might have compromised immune systems, or be elderly or very young. We want to make sure that there’s tracking and safety in place, like any other food distribution network.”

Neighbors helping neighbors

The picture is looking good at small community food pantries, many of which are run by local churches.

“Our donations are strong,” said Ruth Marlow, who helps run the Open Arms Food Bank in the Church For All Nations at 6500 W. Coal Mine Ave. in Jefferson County.

Still, Marlow said she’s seen more needy people in the last few years than at any other time in her 27 years of working with food banks.

“Just because the economy’s better doesn’t mean people aren’t still swamped with medical bills,” Marlow said.

Denver’s crackdown on homelessness in recent years has pushed some needy people out into the suburbs, said Don Cadwallader, who runs the Fish of Westminster food bank out of a pair of churches.

“The need is growing, but our supplies are growing too, thanks to Food Bank of the Rockies’ partnership program,” Cadwallader said.

Food banks can make a world of difference for their recipients.

“I was homeless a few years ago, and when I finally got into an apartment, the cost meant I didn’t have food or clothing for my kids,” said Charlotte Nelson, who was visiting IFCS on April 6 to register for a Mother’s Day gift basket. She’s come to IFCS several times over the last few years as she gets on her feet in life.

“To have something like this easily accessible means the difference between my kids eating and not eating. I know for some people it might be hard to come to a food bank, but you don’t have to do it with your tail between your legs. Everyone hits a rough patch at some point, and everyone can use a hand at some point.”

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