Early one morning at Pine River Shares in Bayfield, volunteers and staff filled backpacks with food and placed them in the nonprofit’s lobby for kids and families to grab at will.
“We were hearing this was a need we needed to fill,” said Sara Grover, an administrative assistant at Pine River Shares.
That has been the norm for nonprofits since the coronavirus’ arrival in Colorado: identifying growing needs and restructuring services to meet them. In the process, food access groups around Southwest Colorado have responded with new and improved partnerships. But even as some organizations face continued financial or logistical challenges, they are keeping a wary eye on the future, when even more people might need assistance.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen yet. There could be another surge of increased need because of food insecurity,” said Ann Morse, executive director of Manna, a soup kitchen in Durango.
Food insecurity could be impacted when unemployment benefits are expected to return to normal levels beginning Aug. 1. A federal waiver that allows people to receive the maximum amount of food assistance is also expected to end July 31, organization representatives said.
But the economy and workforce could rebound or the federal government could pass another stimulus package. Or the number of coronavirus cases could surge, which would increase need.
“It’s just impossible to predict,” said Martha Johnson, director of the La Plata County Human Services Department, who expects some impacts from unemployment benefits decreasing.
Durango Food Bank, Manna, Pine River Shares and Human Services have already seen the need for their services increase by 20% to 50% since Colorado’s first COVID case in March.
About 22% more households are applying for food stamp support compared with 2019, Johnson said. From April to June, Human Services received 2,352 household applications for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
In February, La Plata County residents faced long waits to receive food stamps because “erratic” computer software and low staffing led to a backlog of applications. Johnson said the department worked through the backlog as of May.
“It’s such a relief to know that our community members’ needs are being met in a more timely way,” Johnson said. “And, especially at this time of high stress ... that we’re not contributing to the difficulties that they’re experiencing.”
By the end of the year, the Durango Food Bank expects to double the number of clients it has served. So far, 20% of people coming in have never used food bank services.
Pine River Shares doubled the number of food bags it was distributing. In May, Manna served 9,558 meals – double what it served on average each month before the pandemic.
“The last week or so, people are having a hard time figuring out how to pay their bills and get food,” Grover said. “People didn’t know what they were going to do and came to us.”
New partnershipsPine River Shares’ pilot summer backpack program is just one way nonprofits are working to meet rising food access needs. One key to success: new partnerships.
More than 20 organizations meet regularly in the Southwest Community Resource Group. By communicating consistently, the groups are better able to avoid duplicating services and can strengthen their grant proposals by involving multiple organizations, Johnson said.
“We plan to keep it going after the pandemic because it’s just been an invaluable resource for all of us to share information and ideas,” she said.
Human Services partnered with other Colorado counties to process applications and resolve the backlog. Manna, the Durango Food Bank and Pine River Shares have shared food and commodity supplies to ensure everyone has enough.
The partnerships are helping the organizations reach more people, sometimes new client groups, with more efficient services, Morse said. For example, Manna has new partnerships with other organizations like Compañeros and La Plata Family Services Coalition.
“We’re reaching more people, and we’re doing it in a way that is so beneficial to each organization,” Morse said.
Help and hardshipWhile responding to new needs, food access groups have faced myriad difficulties, from food shortages to keeping volunteers safe during the pandemic.
“There was definitely a shortage of food, and still is, of nonperishable food,” Morse said. “We were finding ourselves paying whatever money it took to get those items in stock.”
Nonprofits, especially those that work with food insecurity issues, are seeing an increase in costs, Morse said. Southwest Colorado nonprofits expect to lose more than $8 million in revenue because of the pandemic, according to a Community Emergency Relief Fund survey. In addition, many nonprofits cannot hold annual fundraisers because of coronavirus-related restrictions.
“That’s a big challenge,” Morse said.
Pine River Shares staff and volunteers have increased their hours. Manna sought more volunteers from La Puente, an organization that supports rural nonprofits.
The Durango Food Bank is struggling to find enough space to store food. The group is using its parking lot, but once the weather changes, it will not have a place to store bulk food orders and conduct food distribution with minimal contact.
“We are desperately looking for a warehouse-like facility that will allow us to continue to operate at our current capacity,” said Sarah Smith, the food bank’s executive director.
Even with continuing challenges, the groups are focused on finding new and better ways to serve people in need.
“I just want people to know that there’s help available,” Grover said. “They’re not going to answer 10,000 questions or jump through all the hoops. We’re just here to help.”