Before he's left the food bank's parking lot, Zachary Mullins sits in partial shade and eats a handful of fresh strawberries and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich from his brown cardboard box.
He's been getting food from Integrated Family Community Services, one of the largest food banks in the Denver metro area, once a week for the past two years.
"I rely on this food bank," said Mullins, who lost his job and home in the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now he lives homeless in Englewood, near where IFCS is based.
But the nonprofit is facing a difficult reality as it contends with 40-year-high inflation rates and a bottle-necked supply chain. It means paying more money for less food even as demand rises.
According to Todd McPherson, IFCS’s director of development, the nonprofit distributed over 364,000 pounds of food between January and May of last year. This year, totals are estimated around 406,000 pounds between those same months.
But McPherson said the center needs about 172,000 more pounds to meet current demand. And it is unlikely to get that soon.
“What we saw in the past has drastically changed,” McPherson said. “I think there’s this perception on the outside that we’re back to normal and we’re not.”
Food insecurity is once again on the rise in Arapahoe County and other parts of the metro area.
Between January and May of this year, the food bank is expected to have served more than 27,000 people, with some living as far out as Douglas County and Bailey, according to McPherson. That’s a 111% increase from the same time last year when IFCS served about 24,300 people.
Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — or SNAP — users in Arapahoe County have also increased, according to Luc Hatlestad, county spokesperson, who said the county issued 27,218 SNAP benefits in March, up from 25,032 in 2021.
SNAP was formerly known as food stamps.
While a surge in federal aid during the first two years of the pandemic helped IFCS meet the needs of thousands coming to its doors, that money is now drying up. McPherson said the nonprofit is seeing smaller government grants that leave it with less buying power in the face of inflation.
One of the biggest suppliers of IFCS’s food is wholesale restaurant distributors, such as Sysco, which can provide bulk amounts of a variety of products. The food bank also pays for food from Food Bank of the Rockies, a Feeding America affiliate, as well as from regional farmers.
Aditi Desai, vice president of marketing and communications for Food Bank of the Rockies, which works with hundreds of distribution partners in Colorado and Wyoming, said the organization spent $1.3 million each month in March and April for food, triple what it spent in 2019 before the pandemic began.
But “just because price is up doesn’t mean we’re not going to purchase it," Desai said, adding communities need the organization to "keep showing up" for them. The price hikes still trickle down to smaller partners, like IFCS.
For example, the cost for a case of 15 dozen eggs, once $15, has more than tripled to $50, according to McPherson, who purchases the product through Food Bank of the Rockies.
This, coupled with IFCS having to compete for food with other entities — including restaurants and schools — when it orders products means it doesn’t always get what it needs.
“We just play the lottery to see if we actually receive it,” McPherson said. “We’re learning we have to order well in advance.”
It’s frustrating, McPherson said, since IFCS has built a regional reputation as a place to find high-quality, balanced food.
“A typical food bank is always thought of as cans and boxes,” McPherson said, adding that while the nonprofit is in no shortage of shelf items, fresher foods like produce and meats are becoming more limited. “You’re maybe getting 25% less fresh food than you did in the past.”
But even shelf items, such as pasta and sauces, are becoming more expensive, said Ashlie Cogburn, who works as a case manager at Arapahoe Community College — which has campuses in Littleton and Castle Rock — and helps oversee the college's food pantry.
While the college pantry's supply comes mostly from donations, Cogburn said she was awarded a $4,200 grant in early March to purchase more food and expand the pantry's locations.
Cogburn said she hoped to use the money on more than just one food order, but inflation had already raised prices between March and late May, when she ordered the food.
“I did not anticipate that it was going to hit so close," said Cogburn, who had no money left over after her first purchase. “It’s absolutely insane for some things. So our students are definitely feeling it.”
Joel McClurg, policy and communication manager for Hunger Free Colorado, a food advocacy group, said nutrition security is a vital component of food banks' work that is threatened when organizations have less food variety.
“Just because somebody's going to the food bank doesn’t mean they should be getting cheesecake and soda pop,” McClurg said.
Mullins, who frequents IFCS once a week, said having fresher produce is "night and day" when it comes to his health and said "when I eat healthy, you can feel it."
Mullins receives federal food aid through SNAP. Under the Biden administration, average benefits were boosted by 25% to $157 per month for an individual, up from $121 before the pandemic.
But as inflation continues to worsen, the extra dollars haven't been enough to cover everything Mullins would usually buy at a grocery store, such as meat.
Brenda Hallman, who lives in Denver and frequents IFCS every other week, said she has had to cut down on her grocery shopping as food and gas prices eat away at her limited income.
"I don't buy meat at the grocery store. I just get the essentials, bread, milk, eggs, stuff like that," said Hallman, who, along with her husband, lives on a fixed income, bringing in about $24,000 between both of them.
Cogburn, the ACC case manager, said the college is looking at boosting the maximum allotment for King Soopers gift cards it distributes to eligible students.
Over the past two years, the college has pumped out more than $7,500 to students in gift cards, with the maximum on a card per semester being $80. But that is far from what is needed to cover basic grocery costs, said Cogburn, who said she spent nearly $200 on just three bags of groceries during a recent shop.
“The conversations are happening, but with inflation the way it is they’ll never happen fast enough," Cogburn said of the college's efforts to increase its aid.
It's a palpable concern for many, according to McClurg.
“I think that community members are really worried right now," he said. "You can just feel the tension and anxiety when a grocery trip that used to cost $40 or $50 now costs $80."
With SNAP benefits being stretched thin to cover basic food costs, McClurg said he wants the federal government to authorize a temporary boost to accommodate for inflation. But relief will also come at the local level, McClurg said, with communities needing to continue to support food banks.
“Hunger is not a one-size-fits-all," McClurg said. "It’s really a web, and we have to take this multi-faceted approach."
Donations, McPherson said, are crucial for IFCS' ability to weather the current economic upheaval.
“People have the power to grow and donate,” McPherson said.
People can donate to IFCS by clicking here or by texting BetterTogether to 801801. The nonprofit also accepts donations for non-food items, which can be critical for people needing toiletries and other supplies not covered by SNAP.
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