Inside the cavernous Denver warehouse, Laura Helmkamp guided a pallet mover through aisles stacked high with packaged food, pulling select goods that very soon would find their way to hungry Coloradans.
She’d taken a half-day from her job as a statistician at the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Campus to volunteer at Food Bank of the Rockies as part of a regular program that lets CU employees give back to the community. But with the novel coronavirus on the march, four of the 11 co-workers who signed up dropped out.
The latest from the coronavirus outbreak in Colorado:
- Many smaller food pantries have indicated they probably will close temporarily due to the coronavirus
- Food Bank of the Rockies, which serves northern Colorado and Wyoming, has begun to change its operations to account for the smaller closures
- Money and volunteers, rather than food drives, are the best ways to help
- 13 food pantries in six southern Colorado counties served by Care and Share Food Bank already have announced temporary closures
- Boulder County’s Emergency Family Assistance Association also is changing its operations to a “grab and go” format to reduce public interaction
“People had a sore throat and didn’t want to risk it, or mild symptoms and just didn’t want to contaminate other people,” Helmkamp said.
Late last week at the massive operational hub near Interstate 70, the volunteer corps was lighter than usual — a direct result of concerns surrounding the spread of the virus. Consequently, the dynamics of food distribution to the needy already have begun to adapt to social distancing and other new realities.
As that impact trickles down to smaller pantries, giant suppliers like Food Bank of the Rockies are changing their entire operational model so distribution won’t be dependent on such a large number of small outlets, Denver-based CEO Erin Pulling said.
Many of those pantries are likely to suspend operations — some already have — as measures to thwart COVID-19 keep people home or at least away from crowds.
“We’re going into the epidemic with the assumption there will be increased need and many of the nearly 700 food pantries will likely temporarily cease to distribute,” she said. “Many operate with volunteers only, very part-time, and many are staffed by volunteers who are representative of more vulnerable communities, often older adults.”
In a loose poll, she added, many agencies said they anticipate closing their doors.
Though the closures would most likely be temporary, Food Bank of the Rockies has already begun finalizing a shift in operational plans to distribute food through a smaller group of core agencies across its territory in Colorado and Wyoming. Agencies that can commit to staying open will receive larger quantities of food to meet increased demand.
COVID-19 IN COLORADO
The latest from the coronavirus outbreak in Colorado:
- LIVE BLOG: The latest on closures, restrictions and other major updates.
- MAP: Cases and deaths in Colorado.
- TESTING: Here’s where to find a community testing site. The state is now encouraging anyone with symptoms to get tested.
- STORY: Colorado schools add saliva testing to slow spread of coronavirus in the classroom
Further down the distribution chain, the organization is looking at drive-through pickup stations that would disperse more food less frequently and minimize possible coronavirus transmission.
“So clients who are driving can get food loaded directly in their car,” Pulling said. “That presents a challenge around traffic and paperwork, but we’re looking at everything we can do around expediting the processes to serve people more efficiently without as much human-to-human contact.”
This is uncharted territory for the nonprofits. Even the government shutdown of a year ago posed only a fraction of the challenges, Pulling noted, adding that the current situation may call for nontraditional volunteer sources. One day, 20 volunteers reported to the food bank when 80 had been scheduled. The next day, 17 of 80 responded.
Many of the volunteers canceling are corporate groups that have company mandates around unnecessary social interaction to minimize coronavirus concerns. So Pulling is considering requests for National Guard personnel and a statewide coalition of disaster responders.
In the meantime, the organization relies on people like Paul Berteau, 68, who has volunteered for 22 years — since well before he retired as a self-employed health insurance broker working with small companies.
Acknowledging his age-related risk for the coronavirus, Berteau noted that he doesn’t have any underlying conditions and remains in good shape — largely due to the physical labor of “schlepping 40-pound boxes all day.” He balances his concern for his own health with the rising need and diminishing number of volunteers.
“There will be people who are apprehensive about coming to volunteer because of admonitions not to go where there are large groups of people,” he said. “I’m aware of it, but I’m not worried about it right now. I’m not being altruistic so much as realistic that as long as I can help, as long as I’m allowed to help, I’ll be here to help.”
Demand is also part of the equation. Pulling said food pantries have seen the same run on goods as shoppers have seen at the grocery store. Toilet paper and antibacterial cleansers have been tough to find — to the point that large food banks have looked to purchase them rather than rely on donations. Even then, supplies have been limited or prohibitively expensive.
And as grocery stores see their food inventory diminished, there’s less for them to donate to the food banks, which rely heavily on those contributions. As for individual donations, Pulling said financial gifts stretch further than food. Plus, the organization operates with minimal reserves, so she’s hoping for strong contributions to help cover increases in distribution.
“Unlike some of us who have resources to go to three stores and stock up on essentials,” Pulling said, “people who are food insecure don’t have the same ability and aren’t going to have a stockpile of food or the essentials for their household.”
Gretchen Brauer, one of three volunteers from the University Church of Christ, which operates a food pantry near the University of Denver campus, noticed that the normally robust supply of food items at the warehouse — particularly perishables, like produce — had dropped off significantly.
“Usually there’s a lot to choose from,” she said, “but it’s a light load today.”
Not far from where Brauer packed her pantry’s goods, Shelley Harmon finished loading a vehicle that will transport food to the Mountain Backpack Program in Evergreen. The school-based nonprofit, which sends 200 kids per week home with food for the weekend, relies on a regular group of about 30 volunteers to serve Evergreen, Clear Creek, Georgetown, Gilpin and one elementary school in Lakewood.
“We’re also preplanning how we might be impacted by group gatherings,” Harmon said. “We’re not anticipating closing down but our plan is if they close the schools, we’ll find alternative pickup locations in our community or we’ll do home delivery.
“We’re telling volunteers to do what they need to do,” she added. “Take care of yourself first.”
The schools did indeed close, and the organization created alternative pickup locations in the counties it serves.
While all agree health concerns are paramount, food bank operations feel the loss particularly among some of their senior volunteers. From his perch moving pallets with a forklift, dock lead Gabriel Lucero noted: “Our golden-agers outwork everybody.”
That includes people like Mil Penner, a 72-year-old retired school social worker. He also volunteers at Children’s Hospital Colorado, but today felt that the warehouse might be a smarter move.
“Because it’s an open environment,” he said, pointing to the yawning doors opening onto the loading area. “And people really need help here.”
At another loading dock, mobile pantry driver Monique Moore oversaw the loading of her tractor-trailer with pallet after pallet of food — produce, bread, canned vegetables and dry goods, bottled water. A little while later, she pulled out and headed for Risen Christ Catholic Parish on South Monaco Parkway in Denver.
Even two hours ahead of the scheduled food distribution, clients there had already started lining up.
Even when you think you’re getting out ahead of the virus, you’re probably behind the curve, observed Julie Van Domelen, executive director of the Emergency Family Assistance Association, the nonprofit that provides food as well as other assistance to needy households in Boulder County. She pointed out that her organization, too, is shifting how it operates.
Starting Friday, the food bank no longer allowed clients to stroll through choosing the items they want. Instead, it has instituted a “grab-and-go” model to reduce human interaction. Prepacked bags sit on a table, divided into perishables and non-perishables, and people simply take one or two, depending on household size.
These measures reflect other small tweaks to the system: Pens for filling out forms are used only once; door knobs are constantly wiped down; even internal meetings take place on the phone.
“We have to stay healthy,” Van Domelen said. “We’re the main safety net for the city of Boulder. If one of our staff or volunteers gets something, they may close us down. We have to be really cautious.”
They’re bracing for an expanding pool of need that has already started.
“I’ve seen folks even today who never used our services,” Van Domelen said. “And we’re getting calls from businesses asking, ‘Can you help our employees?’”
To try to stay out in front of developments, she said, EFAA ran “if-then scenarios,” trying to plan a response if a COVID-19 case appeared in Colorado, or if a case occurred in Boulder County. But early last week, they realized that coronavirus cases surely already had reached their doorstep. They just hadn’t been officially declared. So they tested new procedures that involved adjusting laptops, retraining volunteers, procuring grocery bags.
“It’s moving so fast, we thought, ‘Let’s get all the new procedures in place, all the kinks worked out by today,’” she said on Friday. And sure enough, a Boulder County case was confirmed. By the start of this week, they were fully operational on the new procedures.
“So we have been a little ahead of it,” Van Domelen said. “You kinda know the curve it’s on and where it’s headed and the speed it’s headed. It’s not going to go away.”
While Food Bank of the Rockies and a small handful of others handle northern Colorado, the Care and Share Food Bank of Southern Colorado serves most of the state south of Denver.
CEO Lynne Telford noted that volunteer attrition has been “enough that we’re feeling it and feeling nervous about getting normal work done.” There’s talk about diverting staff and paying overtime to account for the diminished numbers.
On top of it all, the organization’s 1,300-guest fundraiser at The Broadmoor had to be canceled. That alone normally raises half a million dollars. There’s no telling if donors will contribute nonetheless or hold off in uncertain times.
“Problem is, we run lean all the time,” she said.
Care and Share covers 31 counties and has found the landscape for donations getting more competitive during the coronavirus outbreak as the usual food sources dry up. And like other suppliers, Care and Share is exploring ways to minimize human contact, though that can look different depending on the client.
For instance, the organization works with Project Angel Heart delivering food to people with life-threatening illnesses and has begun a new protocol. The delivery volunteer leaves a meal outside the door, rings the bell and steps back until the resident has taken the food inside.
Meanwhile, as anticipated, a string of southern Colorado food pantries last week announced they were suspending operations. When several Colorado Springs school districts announced that they would close for an extra week along with their normal spring break, that started distribution dominoes tumbling.
As of Monday morning, Care and Share listed 13 food pantries in six counties that had announced temporary closures.
Some community centers the city operates, including at least three that host food pantries, shut down not only their food programs, but child care options designed to help parents navigate spring break, according to Kim King, Colorado Springs recreation and administration manager.
“This has happened so quickly, we didn’t have a chance,” King said. “The information and situations are evolving so quickly, even on the hour there’s new recommendations coming out, or a spike in the number of cases. Once school district closings started cascading through, things happened quickly.”
Late last week, the Sacred Heart Catholic Church on Colorado Springs’ west side shut down not only its food pantry, but all events that involve significant congregation.
That included something it calls The Lord’s Dinner, in which rotating volunteers from more than two dozen churches of all denominations associated with the nonprofit Westside Cares set up a free meal at Sacred Heart for any and all who are hungry. This week’s visiting church group expressed concern for the health of its volunteers because of the crowd, which usually numbers more than 100. The conversation soon yielded a decision by the Sacred Heart leadership to put all programs on hold.
Albert Gonzales, the 69-year-old volunteer coordinator for the Sacred Heart pantry, said he’s not worried for his own health but for all the service industry workers and others who stand to miss paychecks — and now will have to look elsewhere for food.
“It’s something surreal, something none of us have experienced or thought about,” Gonzales said. “We had the Ebola crisis, flu crises in the past, and a lot of us were thinking that’s the way this was going to be: three or four weeks of scare. But I went to the grocery store today to get stuff for dinner, and the shelves are empty based on, ‘What if?’ Nobody knows.”
It’s not that food banks have been caught entirely unprepared. Although a booming economy might suggest a reduced need, Food Bank of the Rockies’ CEO Pulling said that just hasn’t been the case. The level of food insecurity today matches what it was 25 years ago.
“We saw food insecurity increase in 2008 and after, but then level off since then,” she said. “What we’re anticipating during this epidemic is that there are many workers who won’t be earning their regular wage, so they’ll have to make a tough choice of whether to pay rent or buy groceries.”
Monique Moore pulled her semi load into the parking lot at Risen Christ Catholic Parish, where volunteers for the food pantry born during the Great Recession set up tables while she lowered pallets from the bed of the truck. She’s been a mobile pantry driver for six months, and has noticed the burgeoning need.
The director of the Risen Christ effort, who gave only the first name Steve, said this marked the first mobile pantry the church hosted since the coronavirus concerns touched Colorado, and he came prepared. New rule: All volunteers — and all clients who file through the line — must wear nitrile gloves.
He, too, sensed an uptick in demand.
“The crowd is bigger,” Steve said as clients prepared to go through the line. “I keep hearing people are losing jobs because of the virus. The need is going to go up.”
Many of the volunteers who distributed food to more than 100 people were seniors. And while they took care to slip on their gloves, they also leaned on their faith and the fact that the mobile pantry took place outdoors, which made for easier social distancing.
“If you keep thinking about it,” figured 76-year-old parishioner and volunteer Kim Furuta, “you’ll drive yourself crazy.”
Just before the line opened, Steve gathered all the volunteers in a circle in the middle of the parking lot. He explained the glove rule again, and then asked if someone would like to say a prayer.
Instinctively, the volunteers reached for the hands next to them. Then, in a split-second reminder that the world has changed, they awkwardly dropped them to their sides.