As demand for food assistance soars in region, a major provider comes under scrutiny
This is the first in a two-part series running Monday and Tuesday about problems in the food distribution network in the region for families in need. Tuesday’s article will detail how the nonprofit organization Lift-Up is addressing complaints that it was ill prepared to handle the surge in demand and allegations of discrimination.
The coronavirus pandemic has created unprecedented demand for food assistance for struggling families between Aspen and Parachute over the past eight months.
It has also exposed serious flaws and shortcomings in the region’s food distribution network.
Lift-Up, the venerable nonprofit that has helped people in need in the region for nearly 40 years, is accused of being slow to ramp up efforts to meet demand. There are also allegations of discrimination by Lift-Up against some clients.
Rather than circle the wagons, Lift-Up has acknowledged there are problems that need to be addressed. Executive director Angela Mills said it has increased staff to provide more training and oversight of volunteers.
It is also making changes to increase its visibility to clients and boost its ability to serve them.
“Bringing some of this to light and having open conversations has allowed Lift-Up to fast track some of the things we really knew we had to do, such as grow our staffing, grow our food budget, expand our Farm-to-Food-Pantry program,” Mills said. “So these things have been able to happen probably faster than they would have without COVID.”
Skico blows the whistle
Aspen Skiing Co. blew the whistle on Lift-Up after it became an unlikely partner in the food distribution network last winter. When Skico’s sizable events department was idled after ski areas were shut down in mid-March, staffers rushed to help bolster food distribution in the midvalley.
Food Bank of the Rockies provided the goods; Skico provided the muscle. Hundreds of people have been driving up weekly to a mobile pantry, first at Basalt Middle School and now at Crown Mountain Park, to pick up food.
“As you start working, you see where the gaps are. Your ear is to the ground,” said Auden Schendler, Skico’s senior vice president for sustainability and community engagement.
After months of helping out, Skico officials became concerned about what they learned. Skico and Aspen Family Connections, a nonprofit organization that has helped distribute food in Aspen, laid out those concerns in a bluntly worded, “strictly confidential” Aug. 28 letter to Mills and Lift-Up’s board of directors.
The letter was distributed to numerous parties involved in the food distribution network, including Pitkin County. The Aspen Times obtained the letter via a Colorado Open Records Act request to the county.
“(W)e have come across some unfortunate information we want to bring to your attention,” the letter states. “Feedback from clients, food pantry workers, as well as conversations with Voces Unidas have brought up some serious questions about Lift-Up’s operations, including its ability to equitably and sufficiently support our community.”
The letter said Skico volunteers were told by families at the Basalt pantry that they were wary of Lift-Up’s mobile pantries in downvalley sites. Lift-Up operates at Carbondale, Glenwood Springs, New Castle, Rifle and Parachute. Clients who were unable to show citizenship were allegedly deprived of fresh produce, the letter said. It cited other anecdotal information that points at possible discrimination.
Skico and Aspen Family Connections said the disparity in numbers of families served at different sites is proof something is wrong.
“A macro indicator of this problem is that we have had an average of 314 families each week at our Basalt site, but (Lift-Up) only an average of 67 each week in Glenwood Springs, and 68 in Carbondale, according to data from the Pitkin County COVID Relief Food Tasks Force,” the letter said.
The concerns and stories of discrimination were shared with Mills in multiple meetings and she was shocked at the allegations, according to the letter. However, the whistleblowers felt too little was done to correct the problems.
“The response we received was compassionate, but ultimately resulted in dismissal, excuse-making, and inaction,” the letter said.
When asked this month if anything has changed since August, Schendler said the letter is still valid.
“Our fundamental concern is, people who need food should get food,” he said.
Agent of change
The new nonprofit Voces Unidas has also observed the food distribution network over the past eight months and become an agent of change. The organization strives to give a voice to the region’s Latino population and empower them to help themselves.
Alex Sanchez, a founder of Voces Unidas, said the organization did a thorough check of the food distribution network after the pandemic hit. At some locations, it found long waits that occasionally resulted in people not getting food. In other locations, organizations were not doing a very good job of reaching out to potential clients, specifically the Latino population,
And at all sites, Sanchez said, there was a lack of cultural understanding of the diets of many Latinos. They are not interested in the processed, canned foods that dominated the food boxes. They want fresh food that lacks saturated fats.
“They should want to provide good, quality, nutritious food,” Sanchez said.
Voces Unidas worked with Food Bank of the Rockies Western Slope, a provider of food for distribution, on model projects in Glenwood Springs and Rifle earlier this year. Voces Unidas did the outreach and helped with distribution. It served 1,700 households in eight weeks, separate from other pantries.
The lesson learned, Sanchez said, is the distribution networks need input from people from all constituencies. Lift-Up and Food Bank of the Rockies Western Slope need Latinos on their boards and management to help reach the Latino community effectively, he said.
Sanchez identified lack of outreach and cultural understanding as the big culprits in the food distribution system.
“I don’t think there is overt discrimination based on (legal) status, from what we saw in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt,” he said.
Food Bank of the Rockies was not as quick to dismiss allegations of discrimination or lack of capacity. Its opinion matters since it provides much of the food that Lift-Up and other organizations distribute.
Sue Ellen Rodwick, the Western Slope coordinator, stressed in an email to The Aspen Times that the organization “has no tolerance for discrimination of any sort” and that such behavior runs counter to its mission.
“That said, in order to continue distributing critically needed resources in the region, we are working with Lift-Up as the organization renews its commitment to create sustainable processes to ensure compliance with all Food Bank of the Rockies program agreements and with the U.S.D.A. Civil Rights requirements,” Rodwick said. “With this continued partnership, and additional oversight and community input, we hope to successfully address food insecurity within our shared service areas.”
Food Bank of the Rockies “moved swiftly” when it heard discrimination claims through Skico and Voces Unidas, according to Rodwick.
“We required that all Lift-Up staff, board members and volunteers complete Food Bank of the Rockies’ premier First Net Civil Rights Training, a program that our partner agency representatives are required to take annually,” she said.
In addition to that training, the more than 800 agencies that Food Bank works with must meet all requirements spelled out in Food Bank’s agreements.
When a partner such as Lift-Up fails to meet all requirements, Food Bank provides education and support to help them achieve compliance.
“At times, we place our partners on a determined ‘probation’ period for them to demonstrate they can and will adhere to the regulations,” Rodwick said. “After that stated probation period, we may consider terminating the partnership if the partner has not complied.”
Food Bank monitors progress to make sure there is compliance with its rules. That includes more frequent visits to a partner’s food pantries and distribution sites.
Rodwick stressed that it is critical to increase the capacity of food distribution from Aspen to Parachute. The pandemic created a surge in demand last spring when many people lost jobs or had their hours reduced. Now that COVID-19 cases are soaring again in the region, there’s huge uncertainty over the economy this winter. Unemployment could increase again, along with the demand for food assistance.
Food Bank is taking direct action to increase capacity. It has taken over the mobile pantries that were started by Voces Unidas in Rifle and Glenwood Springs. Lift-Up continues to operate separate pantries in the towns.
“We went from feeding 150 households per month through three monthly mobile pantries prior to the pandemic to now serving nearly 800 households at four distribution sites per week in the Aspen-to-Parachute region,” Rodwick said. “Additionally, this region is part of our Culturally Responsive Food Initiative in which we are working to provide culturally relevant food, such as tortillas, masa flour and other items, to better serve our communities.”
Food Bank’s actions make it clear it views Lift-Up as an important partner in feeding families in need. In a Nov. 11 letter addressed to its partners in the region, Rodwick said Food Bank has heard the concerns regarding discrimination at Lift-Up and has taken “appropriate follow-up measures.”
The letter describes how people or organizations can file complaints about discrimination both with Food Bank and with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which provides commodities many food banks rely on.
“Food Bank of the Rockies stands firm in our commitment to support Lift-Up as this organization creates sustainable processes to ensure compliance with all Food Bank of the Rockies’ program agreements and the USDA Civil Rights Requirements,” the letter said. “With continued partnership we will successfully address food insecurity within our shared service areas.”
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