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Local food banks overwhelmed with number of families facing food insecurity

The demand is high, and these facilities are dealing with the same staffing shortages other industries are.

DENVER — Food insecurity in the Denver tripled during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment (DDPHE).

DDPHE said now 33% of Denver's total population is facing facing food insecurity, up from around 11 % before the pandemic. Those statistics come from Hunger Free Colorado's semi-annual food security survey conducted in April 2021. 

Food insecurity means many things, including not having reliable access to nutritious food, being able to consistently put healthy food on the table or having to cut back or skip meals because there isn't enough money to buy more food. 

The need is reflected at places like Feeding Denver's Hungry. It's a free grocery store that usually has 450 slots open to families a month. The founder and executive director, Jim Scharper, said the waiting list now is as long as 2,000 people. 

"Families are trying to get help," he said. "We just can only do so much." 

A wait list like that is new for the Feeding Denver's Hungry and the numbers are expected to stay elevated. 

"We're distributing enough food every single day for almost 200,000 meals," said Erin Pulling, the president and CEO of the Food Bank of the Rockies. 

There is a complex list of factors of why this is happening. 

"Realized rent is skyrocketed in Denver," said Scharper. "A lot of families who are working are having a hard time paying more than just mortgage, house payments or rent, and there's no money left for food." 

Pulling added that the pandemic presented the perfect storm for food banks. 

"Supply chain challenges, more expensive food, an inability to get back to work and complications with kids at home and so a higher need," she explained.

Pulling also mentioned the impacts of some federal aid ending. 

"The Food Bank of the Rockies distributed more food in the last year and a half than we ever have in our 43-year history," said Pulling.

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Then food banks are also facing the same issues so many other businesses are. 

"We only have so many funds to work with and volunteer base is limited," said Scharper. "We do have a lot of great volunteers out here, but we could definitely use more so we could open up more days of the week."

Scharper said at the beginning of the pandemic, a lot of people volunteered when out of work but that the number dropped off as people went back to their jobs. 

"We're experiencing the same type of staffing shortages as other businesses," said Pulling. "Fortunately, we have a reliable labor force."

She is referring to a solid group of volunteers who've helped with the increased demand. 

Feeding Denver's Hungry has seen more families with children come through their facility. Food Bank of the Rockies said they are seeing more people reaching out for food assistance for the first time during the pandemic. 

Earlier this week, the city approved a third round of funding through federal dollars to help feed more people. Non-profits can apply for a portion of that $3 million by September 28.

The third round of funding is on top of the $2.9 million set aside to help with food needs since 2020.

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