Lift-Up says scrutiny is helping it move in ’right direction’
Roaring Fork Valley nonprofit has added staff to boost food distribution capacity and requires civil rights training
This is the second in a two-part series running about problems in the food distribution network in the region for families in need. Monday’s article outlined complaints by other players in the food distribution network that Lift-Up was ill prepared to handle the surge in demand and allegations of discrimination.
When the pandemic broke out in mid-March, the nonprofit Lift-Up was hit with unprecedented demand at its food pantries between Aspen and Parachute.
Like the rest of the world, the organization needed time to find its footing in a drastically altered environment. But some other players in the regional food distribution network criticized Lift-Up in August for being too slow to adapt.
Lift-Up executive director Angela Mills said the nonprofit is in better shape now to meet demand than it was in recent months after creating and filling new staff positions and adopting policies to address capacity.
“In the beginning when (the pandemic) started, none of us really knew,” Mills said in mid-November. “I remember telling my staff, ‘Hey, we’re going to have to pivot and this will probably last three or four months.’ Well, we’re in our eighth month. So as we’re going on and planning, this is really going to be more our new normal.”
For Lift-Up and other organizations feeding people who are unemployed and underemployed, this time of year is prime time. In addition to providing food on a weekly basis to households economically stressed from the pandemic, they are also making extra efforts to feed families for the holidays, as they do each year.
Lift-Up anticipated serving several hundred people Monday alone at mobile pantries in Carbondale, Glenwood Springs and New Castle.
Holidays aside, demand is growing. While the households served haven’t climbed back to the numbers seen in April, it is “creeping back to about 500 per week,” Mills said.
Aspen Skiing Co. and Aspen Family Connections — which are working with Food Bank of the Rockies to distribute food in Basalt/El Jebel and Aspen/Snowmass Village — questioned if Lift-Up was able to change its model to meet increased demand. The questions were raised in a letter obtained by The Aspen Times. The letter also unveiled tough allegations that some clients were wary of visiting Lift-Up’s pantries due to discrimination against Latinos.
Mills said Lift-Up has fast-tracked some changes to respond to the issues. Sophia Gielink was hired as the organization’s first volunteer programs manager. She is a bilingual speaker who will oversee training and utilization of volunteers.
“This kind of goes into the letter in August, bringing forth some of the observations that perhaps we did have some weak links in the way that we were treating people and the holes in training,” Mills said. “Now, all of our staff, all of our board, all of our volunteers start with a very basic civil rights training. And we’re going to be introducing, through the addition of Sophia, diversity training, equity training and sexual harassment training.”
Mills said she has not witnessed any discrimination by Lift-Up staff or volunteers at the mobile distribution sites that were implemented after the coronavirus hit. However, she said she would not rule it out. She said she wishes more information could have been provided about the alleged incidences — locations and the alleged offenders’ names, for example.
Nevertheless, she said the complaints were taken seriously.
“People are human and it very well could have happened,” Mills said, “and should anyone even hear that about Lift-Up distribution or a volunteer or staff member, please bring it forward to us or a partner agency that you’re comfortable with and help us grow.”
Lift-Up changed its policy so that volunteers must sign up in advance and when they appear at a site to work, they must verify they went through the training. They will be issued a nametag with the Lift-Up logo to show they are official representatives of the organization.
Lift-Up has focused on distributing food in Parachute, Rifle, New Castle, Glenwood Springs and Carbondale. Skico officials contended in the August letter that some people were avoiding those sites and picking up food in Basalt and El Jebel because they were wary of the Lift-Up sites.
Mills said she hopes that wasn’t the case, but Lift-Up will nevertheless work to solve issues.
“Hopefully, we’re taking the necessary steps to build or rebuild trust,” she said. “As a 38-year-old organization going through change, I believe we’re going in the right direction to do that.”
Lift-Up has financial incentive to avoid discrimination. It acquires food from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for two of its specialized programs. They also buy food from Food Bank of the Rockies, which procures some of its supplies through the USDA.
In fiscal year 2019, Lift-Up received nearly $138,000 worth of commodities for The Emergency Food Assistance Program and Commodity Supplemental Food Program in Rifle and Parachute, according to a USDA public affairs specialist for the Mountain Plains Region.
In fiscal year 2020, Lift-Up received $345,463 worth of food through the USDA.
Lift-Up doesn’t get direct funding from USDA, though it received $36,000 in CARES Act funds provided to Food Bank of the Rockies to buy a new freezer in Rifle, the USDA said.
Another member of the USDA’s public affairs staff declined to confirm or deny if the government agency has received a complaint about discrimination by Lift-Up.
“The USDA Food and Nutrition Service works diligently with many partners to end hunger and improve health and nutrition, but cannot discuss any potential investigations into program operations,” said an email from Regional Public Affairs Director David Von Behren. The statement went onto to say USDA prohibits discrimination of any kind by organizations it assists.
Mills said the USDA has not contacted her about the alleged incidences of discrimination.
The allegations held a personal sting for Mills. One of her grandmothers immigrated to the U.S. from Guadalajara and other grandparents immigrated from Italy. She said she feels a connection to the local immigrant and Latino populations.
“There is a heightened sense to discrimination right now and that is a good thing,” she said. “People are talking more than perhaps they were before. I don’t think any of those stories or the letter came from an ill-meaning kind of place. I think that due to the heightening sensitivity around equality issues, that’s probably what brought it up.
“I don’t know, like I said, those things very well could have happened and we’re doing everything that we can to address them,” she continued. “It could be that somebody had a bad experience years ago and now they’re feeling supported enough that they’re coming out and talking about it. I don’t know what the catalyst was, but I think it is helping our organization move forward in a positive way, regardless of where it came from. I have felt a lot of support and encouragement in the changes the organization is making to adjust to move ahead.”
Regarding Lift-Up’s capacity to help more people in need, Mills noted Lift-Up hired Julia Farwell as the programs manager in Pitkin County as the first dedicated staff person to work in Aspen. The brick-and-mortar pantry in Aspen was shut down when COVID-19 struck. It is now reopened with food bags available for pick-up by appointment. It is a pilot program that will lead to the gradual re-opening of other Lift-Up brick-and-mortar sites.
Lift-Up also plans to open a drive-through pantry in Basalt in January.
Meanwhile, it is taking steps to make its food distribution as the existing mobile sites more accessible and visible. Better signage and tents are being added to the mobile sites.
“We’ve also expanded our marketing outreach, increased our print ads, increasing our social media, increased our radio spots, both English- and Spanish-speaking, and work with grassroots groups on Facebook to get our messaging out as well,” Mills said.
Lift-Up is always looking for help from volunteers and, of course, donors. More on its efforts can be found at http://www.liftup.org.
After serving people in need in the region for 38 years, it plans to help for many more.
“It’s been constant change and thanks to community feedback and community funding, I believe we are now moving in the right direction to be more client-centered and be able to help our community at the level they need now,” Mills said.
Last Friday, the Aspen Art Museum capped its second annual ArtWeek with a big fundraiser. The proceeds will help fund art education and accessibility for the Roaring Fork Valley and beyond.
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