Hunger pains in Jeffco during COVID-19

Food pantries have seen more than a third of demand come from new faces

Joseph Rios
Posted 5/26/20

Lakewood resident Bev Noia was on a walk with her dog in mid-April when she saw a little free library with canned food in it. Little free libraries can typically be found in residential neighborhoods …

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Hunger pains in Jeffco during COVID-19

Food pantries have seen more than a third of demand come from new faces


Lakewood resident Bev Noia was on a walk with her dog in mid-April when she saw a little free library with canned food in it.

Little free libraries can typically be found in residential neighborhoods and are free book-sharing boxes where anyone can take or share a book.

But Noia liked the idea of putting canned food in them and started putting food in her box outside her home. She shared the idea on Nextdoor, and people asked her how they could get little free libraries to use them to share food.

Noia, who has a hobby for carpentry, offered to build little free libraries for residents who wanted to put canned food in them, and now she has had at least 15 requests for boxes.

The canned food is a popular commodity as Noia has often found that the food she puts in her little free library will be gone by the next day.

“All of us are having the feeling of wanting to do what we can to help in this time of the coronavirus. I don't have an excess of money, but I have an excess of wood, and I have time and energy,” said Noia. “I put that together, and I make these little pantries.”

The fact that Noia's canned food has been hopping off her little free library's shelves may coincide with a larger issue that Jefferson County is facing during the pandemic — hunger.

Marissa Silverberg, COVID-19 lead community resource coordinator for Jeffco Public Health, said since mid-March, 30% to 40% of residents coming in for assistance at food pantries are new clients.

“I think (the pandemic) has elevated the issue (of hunger). It's an issue that we have been dealing with for a long time,” she said. “This is an issue connected to housing instability and economic instability. You see trends around food insecurity, and I think having this rapid loss of employment, rapid loss of income and rapid loss of business — you start to have basic needs that are no longer being met.”

Housing instability doesn't have a standard definition, but usually revolves around having challenges paying rent, overcrowding, moving frequently, staying with relatives or spending the majority of household income on housing, according to Healthy People, the country's health promotion and disease prevention agenda through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Economic instability revolves around a change to the economy — like the one COVID-19 caused by forcing non-essential businesses to close for a period of time. In turn, economic instability leads to higher unemployment rates.

The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment reported on May 14 that there have been a total of 451,155 unemployment claims since the pandemic shutdowns began in March.

Food insecurity is defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle. It can be influenced by a number of factors including income and employment status, according to Healthy People. Jeffco Public Health reported that 59,110, or more than one in 10, Jeffco residents are food insecure.

Food insecurity can also lead to consequences like hunger, according to Jeffco Public Health.

“We've been hearing stories of folks on the frontlines right now who are in quarantine having to support families, paying for a hotel at the same time and are experiencing food insecurity themselves and do not have the proper support they need,” said Silverberg. “That is a huge concern. We've all made this assumption that they are fine. But I also think it feeds into the stigma of asking for help and acknowledging that these folks need help as well.”

Jeffco unites

As the pandemic unfolded and schools and businesses were closed, Jeffco Public Health, Jeffco mayors, Jeffco Public Schools, food pantries, faith-based organizations, nonprofits and more united to create the Jefferson County Integrated Food Task Force. It was created and coordinated by the Action Center human-services organization.

“It became clear pretty immediately when all of us were working hard to figure out our response to COVID-19 that we were all operating in the dark and trying our best to figure things out on the fly. We knew there would be an increasing need in our community,” said Action Center Executive Director Pam Brier. “The idea was to all get on the same page about sharing ideas, sharing our best practices about how we were each responding to the immediate crisis and to share resources as best as we could.”

The organizations in the task force have been collaborating with each other to share volunteers, distribute food, connect with decision makers about pressing needs that are being seen in communities, and to ensure that food from Food Bank of the Rockies and fresh pick up food is available to residents. The task force meets weekly via Zoom.

Brier said the Action Center has seen an uptick in terms of the need for food support and the need for other services the organization offers like rental and utility assistance.

“Our phone calls have increased in volume by almost 600%, and our food lines have doubled in size compared to what we were typically seeing,” said Brier. “We know the need is growing.”

One of the task force's goals is to destigmatize food pantry use, and it is working to do so through its “Food for Everyone” public service announcement campaign. The campaign's message is that there is plenty of food for everyone and that those who are looking to find a food pantry can call 211 for assistance.

“As a Jefferson County community, we want to ensure that everyone has access to food and nutrition during this time. I am often wondering what I am going to make my family for dinner, and if you feel the same way, please stop by any of our food banks for some groceries to help put that next meal together,” said Mary Berg, executive director of Jefferson County Human Services, in a statement. “We will have something available for you today, tomorrow and in the future.”

Jeffco Public Schools Director of Operations, Food and Nutrition Services Erika Edwards has been representing the school district on the task force. The school district set up 12 food hubs all over the county when it was forced to close its schools. At those food hubs, children 18 years and younger can pick up breakfast and lunch for free.

Edwards said Jeffco Public Schools has been serving 12,000 to 14,000 meals each time the food hubs are open on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

The Jeffco Schools Foundation is planning to start distributing grocery store gift cards at those food hubs starting the week of May 25, Edwards said.

“The presence of nutrition can really provide a baseline, and I think if people are starting from a different place, they can't necessarily have the success that others have when they don't have that level playing field,” said Edwards. “And I do believe hunger and nutrition itself can contribute to that level playing field for kids.”


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