The Lost City coffee shop was open only 39 days in Capitol Hill before Gov. Jared Polis ordered all Colorado restaurants and bars to temporarily close March 16 due to the coronavirus crisis.
“Definitely a brutal time to open a business, that’s for sure,” Lost City owner Michael Graham said with a laugh.
The day before Polis’ announcement, Graham and co-owners, Landon and Keara Mascareñaz, met with a handful of people at their coffee shop in the First Baptist Church near the state Capitol to discuss how the cafe could provide community support during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Within a few days, Lost City had joined with four other organizations to create the nonprofit Denver Metro Emergency Food Network, which since March 18 has cooked and delivered over 90,000 free meals to hungry and homebound Coloradans. So far, they’ve received more than $400,000 in donations to buy ingredients and scale up the operation.
Using donated and purchased ingredients, the meals are prepared in a commercial kitchen in the basement of the church. The meals are delivered directly to people’s doorsteps by Bondadosa, a food transportation service that connects local producers directly to consumers. The operations are being supported by dozens of volunteers organized by the nonprofit Friends & Family, which works with members of the food and beverage industry.
“It takes more than one organization to have the expertise needed to fully address health equity and food access,” said Christine Alford, the executive director of Denver Food Rescue, one of the emergency food network’s founding organizations. “This network is really amazing and we look forward to making sure it’s sustainable.”
The team’s goal is to deliver 250,000 free meals by June 1. The network has received so many requests for meals that it temporarily stopped taking on new orders last week. The team needs time to figure out how to scale up for a future beyond the coronavirus crisis.
“We’re still trying to figure out a strategy for next steps, but I think it would look something like a combination of an economic recovery piece and still providing emergency meals,” said Landon Mascareñaz, who also is the vice president of community partnerships at the Colorado Education Initiative. “We know this need is not going away anytime soon.”
Food insecurity –– an underlying crisis amidst the pandemic
Over half a million Coloradans are food insecure, meaning they lacked consistent access to a reliable food source during the past year, according to the Colorado Health Institute. Food insecurity often is linked to such factors as low incomes, lack of affordable housing, and high health costs –– all of which are expected to be exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis.
“Coronavirus is a pandemic in itself, but food insecurity is a pandemic that we are working on 365 days a year,” Alford said.
Volunteers for the Denver Food Rescue, founded in 2012, collect expired but otherwise healthy food from local grocery stores and distribute it –– usually on bicycles –– to people in need of food assistance. The organization also runs a pantry program, where community members can come and pick up free food. Since the stay-at-home order was issued, Alford said her organization has delivered 43,000 pounds of food.
Mascareñaz and Graham weren’t planning on expanding Lost City after they opened their first location in October in the River North neighborhood, Graham said. “But when the Spring Café closed, we saw an opportunity and we jumped on it,” he added.
The Spring Café, which employed resettled refugees, closed in December because too few people were applying for work after Denver saw a steep decrease in the number of refugees arriving under the Trump Administration.
“I knew that any business we would start would have a social impact mission,” Graham said, who is also a business consultant who specializes in economic equity issues in Colorado. “And our mission aligned well with the Spring Café.
“I’ve always liked creating interesting spaces, and the idea was kinda like, ‘why not?’” Graham said.
But a global pandemic was not part of the business plan. After Lost City temporarily closed due to the coronavirus, Graham and Mascareñaz invested $5,000 to jump start the emergency food network.
“We thought, if we have to shut down, at least we went out with a bang,” Mascareñaz said.
Even before the network’s website went live, a donation of $25,000 had been made. “And we were kinda like, ‘Woah. OK, we are onto something,’” Mascareñaz said.
On March 18, the team made its first batch of 130 meals. The next day, they made 400. On the third day, they delivered more than 1,000 to people in the Denver metro area. On April 16, the team cooked, packaged and delivered meals that included roasted chicken, mac and cheese and tomato salad.
One of the biggest challenges is figuring out how much food is needed to keep up with demand that seems to be growing exponentially. “If we put 60,000 meals out there over the course of five weeks, you know there are thousands of families that need support,” Graham said. “There is clearly a need.”
Graham said the first few weeks were some of the hardest he’s ever experienced. “Because we’re not just raising money for Lost City, we are doing it for the whole network,” he said. “We have a lot of people’s livelihoods to worry about.”
From a few paninis to 3,000 meals a day
Josh Ford pulls into the parking lot of the First Baptist Church every weekday at 6:30 a.m. and fires up the Old Hickory Smoker. Then he heads to the basement to get to work.
“I’ve been doing restaurants my whole life. Since I was 14, making hot dogs at Skateland,” said Ford, 39, who is the executive chef of the Denver Metro Emergency Food Network. “This ramped up really quickly, and we’re all kind of learning as we go here.”
Because about half the food is donated, the menu for the day is often a mystery. “It’s like ‘Top Chef,’ but instead of a handful of ingredients, it’s pallets full of food,” Ford said, whose team includes 12 paid staff members and 10 to 20 volunteers per day, some of whom are out-of-work restaurant workers.
“We try to have fun here,” Ford said, smiling beneath his gray-and-white cloth face mask, as a Lady Gaga song blared through the makeshift prep kitchen that he calls “The Jungle.”
Local chefs are supporting the network by cooking meals in their own kitchens then bringing them to the church to be delivered. The Comal Heritage Food Incubator –– part of the Focus Points Family Resource Center in northeast Denver –– is making nearly 500 pounds of soup a week to be distributed. The incubator provides training, economic development and financial support for refugees and immigrants working to start their own food businesses.
“We are trying to make the food as nutrient dense as possible, while also really leaning into the comfort food,” Ford said. “People are at home, they are scared, and we want to make sure that we’re providing healthy food but also food that makes people feel comfortable and safe.”
The basement of the church feels as if it’s been functioning as a full-scale catering operation for years. The set-up includes a handful of prep stations spread 6 feet apart, packaging stations, the meat smoking operation in the parking lot, and a kitchen full of cooks combining the miscellaneous ingredients into masterpieces.
“I’ve always had the philosophy that you should hire people smarter than you and then get out of their way,” said Ford, who has been Lost City’s chef since August. “And that’s exactly what’s happening here. And that’s been the best part.”
Ford said when he looks back at this period of time, he hopes people remember the “humanity in all of this madness.” He said he overheard one of his volunteers saying that they made twice as much dinner the other night to share with their neighbor.
“That’s why we are doing this. To help each other out,” Ford said. “And whether that’s feeding one person or feeding 10,000. What better way to make people feel at ease than giving them a meal.”
Food Assistance Resource List
- Map of all food pantries in the Denver Metro area.
- Colorado Department of Human Services Food Assistance Program.
- Denver Food Rescue’s Comprehensive Resource List.
- Resource list from the Food Bank of the Rockies, which have partner agencies in 30 Colorado counties. Their Food Resource Hotline is 855-855-4626.
- Do you need help getting essential items but are sick, in a high risk group or have been exposed to COVID-10? The Denver Delivery Network can shop for you. (You still buy the groceries.)
- If you need help finding resources, call 2-1-1, the state’s confidential and multilingual service connecting people with resources across the state.