Perhaps this will surprise you since I lead the very sort of organization that will benefit from the funding included in HB20B-1003, which Gov. Jared Polis signed into law Dec. 7 and which will provide $5 million in funding to Colorado’s charitable-food sector, but let me be blunt.

We can do better.

Don’t get me wrong; the COVID relief package includes some important items and will help many Coloradans with their rents, utilities, and small, but meaningful, stimulus checks.

However, it does too much to prop up charitable responses, and too little to address the many inequities Coloradans face.

Teva Sienicki

By now, we all know that while this pandemic affects all of us, it has not impacted us equally. And responding with charity is yet another way to drive deeper inequities.

The charitable food sector can never provide an efficient or equitable response to a crisis of this scale. The patchwork system of well-meaning food pantries lacks coverage and depth of capacity to do so efficiently. And – even at its best – the charitable food system is a separate and unequal model for food access.

It would be far more efficient and equitable to simply give hungry Coloradans money to buy their own food, or pay their rent, or whatever bills have stacked up for them as they’ve endured unemployment, loss of tip income, furloughs, and cuts in their schedules.

This would infuse dollars back into the state’s economy, supporting local producers, farmers, and retailers all while ensuring that rural Coloradans, those with transportation challenges, and those living in communities without access to a high-quality, high-capacity charity will all gain equal access to the food they need for themselves and their families.

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Direct cash stimulus would also allow those with health challenges, diet-related diseases, allergies, or cultural dietary preferences to choose the foods that best suit their household’s needs.

Direct financial stimulus would provide an additional benefit of shortening the food lines – even if temporarily – at the many pantries and charitable food distribution points across the state.

As the CEO of one of those organizations, Metro Caring, I’ll continue to speak plainly: We cannot continue to sustain the load of such a dramatically increased need for food, a basic human right.

Many of our organizations are also up against the health and safety portion of this crisis with staff, volunteers, and community members succumbing to COVID, and trying to run our daily operations with reduced numbers of volunteers (and sometimes staff). We struggle to keep personal protective equipment available, social distancing enforced, and – at times – must grieve devastating losses in our community, all the while trying to keep up with a threefold increase in demand for our services.

Even before the current pandemic, far too many Coloradans faced hunger. Low wages, unstable schedules, soaring rents, low social security levels, and limited or no health benefits all added up to a hamster wheel of too many bills and too little income for far too many families and elders. 

Charity won’t solve these underlying systemic challenges; challenges that the pandemic is only exacerbating. Rent-, utility-, and food-assistance programs may provide a band-aid the problem for today, but they will never solve the underlying structural problems in our economy.

I strongly urge our members of Congress, Gov. Polis, and members of the Colorado legislature to consider further direct financial assistance to the estimated one in three Coloradans who currently do not know where their next meal is coming from.

Coloradans need you to step up. Coloradans like Mary, a retiree who found out during COVID that she had cancer. Her already tight budget barely covered rent and bills, and now her grocery money goes to cover her cancer treatments. As food costs have gone up due to COVID, a dollar doesn’t stretch as far as it used to.

Coloradans like Joanne, who works in the medical field, so she’s only had one break since COVID started. As a front-line responder to this pandemic, her take-home pay doesn’t quite cover her family’s bills, and she relies on food pantries for food. However, finding time to wait in line at a pantry for food is tough with her pandemic schedule.

Rather than forcing Mary or Joanne to stand in line at the food pantry, apply for rental assistance at another charity, or put her name on an ever-growing list of those in need of utility assistance, let’s put the money directly in her pockets and the pockets of other Coloradans to allocate herself according to what she and her family need most.

Next time you consider a relief bill, keep it simple, and stick to cash stimulus, and for fancy policy work, focus on economic stimulus options to create good jobs and build needed infrastructure.

Please stop further outsourcing the provision and protection of basic human needs to an already strained, unevenly dispersed band of non-profits with uneven capacity.

For twenty years, Teva Sienicki has worked for a more inclusive Colorado, in roles that varied from anti-poverty community organizer to marriage equality advocate, English as a Second Language teacher, and now as CEO of Metro Caring, a Denver anti-hunger organization.

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