Margaret Brooks doesn’t know what to say to her great-niece and nephew when they ask her why she’s not eating with them at the dinner table. “They know the food is not there,” she said – so she tells them she’s not hungry.
Brooks and her family are skipping medications because they can’t afford them, she said. The adults in the household are missing meals to ensure two children are fed, she said. They’ve been looking for jobs – her nephew got one, but she and her niece have been looking since they moved here in July.
She’s been working with La Plata County Human Services for months trying to get support from the Colorado Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and insurance from Medicaid for the five people in her household, but a monthslong backlog has left her without benefits, she said.
A secretary at Human Services told Brooks that short staffing and a technical glitch have caused a monthslong backlog and suggested she go to Durango Food Bank, Brooks said.
The number of clients at the Durango Food Bank has doubled since September, putting a strain on the nonprofit as it struggles to keep up with demand, said Executive Director Sarah Smith.
The Durango Food Bank served a record 170 households with food in a five-day period this month, Smith said. The nonprofit has purchased food since September to supplement donations and provide enough food to people who need it, something the organization hasn’t had to do in years, she said.
“We had nearly a semitruck (filled with food) come in, and it all went out in a month,” Smith said of food delivered from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “That only equaled about three meals per person. If 18,000 pounds feeds clients for three meals, we’d have to have four times that (to meet the need).
“That’s like four or five trucks, and we don’t have space or capacity to store that volume of food,” she said. “We’re not able to plan ahead or receive enough food to feed the people coming in. It’s kind of a catch-22.”
A software problem with Colorado’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program may be partly to blame for an increase in clients, but it’s not the only cause, she said.
Low staffing at the La Plata County Human Services Department combined with the software issue created a backlog of cases at the agency, said Megan Graham, spokeswoman with La Plata County. New employees should help, but training those people will take time, she said.
“It will take a while to whittle at the backlog,” she said.
People who want to participate in the Durango Food Bank program must complete a referral form each month, according to its website. But the number of people coming to the food bank without a referral has increased in recent months, draining the nonprofit’s food reserves within weeks when in the past it lasted for months, Smith said.
“We are seeing a lot of people just walking in, saying, ‘Hey, we are just really struggling and found you online, what do we need to do to get help?’” Smith said. “I don’t know if it’s population increase; there are a lot of people struggling.”
Brooks blames a lack of creativity to solve structural problems.
“I just want it known that they may be short-staffed, but meanwhile, people are starving in La Plata County. In the meantime, people are hungry. In the meantime, people are getting their utilities turned off, or at least getting threatened,” she said. “There are children involved, and you have to give a (expletive).”
The food bank is open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and from 9 a.m. to noon Fridays at 194 Bodo Drive, Unit C. The nonprofit plans to host a dump truck outside Walmart in Durango on Dec. 13, 14 and 15 where people can donate food to the organization.
“A lot of families are not worried about Christmas gifts because their primary focus is how do we pay for rent, how do we pay for food, how do we get by,” she said.
Anyone interested in helping may contact Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.