Hunger a big issue even as recession eases
The number of people seeking assistance from a local food pantry has dipped since the height of the Great Recession, but volunteers battling hunger say a severe problem still exists even if it’s not as evident.
LIFT-UP, which has food pantries in seven towns in the Roaring Fork and Lower Colorado river valleys, said it has served 14,535 people with food from January through August this year. During the same period in 2009, it assisted 15,635 people, or about 7.5 percent more.
LIFT-UP Executive Director Mike Powell said the drop in demand is negligible.
“It’s like saying, ‘You got hit by 10 nuclear bombs, now it’s just nine nuclear bombs. Do you feel better?'” he said.
LIFT-UP has pantries in Aspen, Basalt, Carbondale, Glenwood Springs, New Castle, Rifle and Parachute. Demand shot up 300 percent in 2009 and has remained high. Rifle has the highest demand this year, followed by Carbondale. Aspen has stayed “fairly steady” since it opened a couple of years ago, according to Powell.
Kim Willie, a social activist in El Jebel, has focused on hunger as a top issue and has immersed herself in recent years in efforts to supply pantries, provide fresh produce for the hungry and find additional ways to get food into the hands of those that need it.
She said she’s willing to bet that just about everyone in the valley knows someone who needs assistance getting an adequate amount of food.
Sometimes it’s just not evident. Wille said a great number of people she’s met that need help providing food for their families are ashamed and don’t want anyone to know. “People call up to our local LIFT-UP and ask if they can come to the back door,” Wille said.
She is concerned the problem will become more severe this fall for a couple of reasons. First, while the economy is stabilizing in the Roaring Fork Valley there are still a lot of under-employed or unemployed people. The summer season lasts less than three months, so families on tight budgets will have a tough time making it through the fall offseason without some type of assistance, she said.
A second reason for concern is the expectation that food prices will climb, Wille said. Poor domestic harvest of corn and soy beans will send prices of everything from meat to dairy products and cereal higher this fall.
Wille said the slow economy has been particularly tough on the Roaring Fork Valley’s Latino population. Many workers in construction and tourist accommodations lost their jobs. They held out, but when the jobs didn’t materialize, they left the valley, she said.
Debi Boyle has been the coordinator at the Carbondale pantry of LIFT-UP for four years and a volunteer there for much longer. “2009, we were crazy,” she said.
That year, the Carbondale pantry served 539 people in August compared to 385 for the same month this year. In 2009, at the height of the recession, the number of people served swelled to 539 in September; 822 in October; 1,983 in November; and 1,842 in December.
Boyle said she anticipates that demand will pick-up this offseason, but not to the 2009 level. Many people using the service have moved away, she said.
The pantry in Carbondale is located at the Third Street Center. It is open 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
The Basalt pantry is at the Basalt Community United Methodist Church, 167 Holland Hills Rd in Basalt. It is open on Wednesday and Thursday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Gardeners at the community gardens in Basalt and Carbondale are supplying the LIFT-UP pantries in those towns with fresh produce this summer. “People get really excited” for the fresh vegetables, Boyle said.
Whole Foods Market in Basalt supplies the pantries with all sorts of food items, as does City Market, Boyle said. The supermarkets provide bread, dairy products, frozen meat and anything that has reached its expiration date but is still safe to eat. All that food used to just go to the trash, Boyle said.
Whole Foods also designated LIFT-UP as the recipient for its first Community Giving Day. Five percent of net sales on Wednesday, Sept. 12 were donated to the nonprofit. The donation was $3,486.
LIFT-UP is celebrating its 30th anniversary this month. The nonprofit’s board of directors made a significant change this year in response to the severity of the recession and the ongoing, slow recovery, Powell said. Each person seeking aid is now supplied with food for three meals per day for four days. It used to be for just three days. People are eligible for the four days of food four times per year.
LIFT-UP is always in need of cash or food donations. Go to http://liftup.org/ to learn how to help.
Wille said there are numerous steps people can take to battle hunger in the region. Residents with neighbors who are elderly or have had trouble finding steady work can do simple things such as offer them a ride to the grocery store. She also encourages gardeners to plant extra each spring and donate some produce to pantries. She coordinated a “Plant a Row to End Hunger” program a couple of years ago where seeds were donated. She plans to revive that next year.
Wille said pantries can use donations of less obvious items. “Socks are the number one requested thing at food pantries and homeless shelters,” she said. Diapers, personal hygiene products and pet food are also in high demand. Among the food that is most requested is canned chile, canned stew and fresh fruit and vegetables.
Wille also urged people to volunteer their time to help at pantries or soup kitchens.
“There are so many things we could do. It’s a matter of collaboration,” she said. “That’s the word of the decade.”
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