BANKING ON KINDNESS: Aurora mini food banks have a big mission

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AURORA | For Sandy Rothman, the elixir of life is a Volvo S60 teeming with spaghetti sauce and canned green beans.

“When I take care of my pantry I feel like I’m 20 years old again,” Rothman, 75, says with a chuckle. “I’m learning something new, doing something that I love and it’s just a really nice feeling. Then when I try to get into my car I realize I’m 75, and there’s a difference.”

For the past two years, Rothman has been the quiet, driving force behind a free food pantry housed within the Martin Luther King Jr. Library on East Colfax Avenue.

Underwritten by the Aurora Gateway Rotary Foundation, the modest wooden box provides 24-hour access to free canned goods, hygiene products and occasionally even fresh produce. 

The so-called “little free pantry” is largely stocked by Rothman, who makes a weekly pilgrimage to SECOR Cares, a free market in Parker that houses thousands of pounds of food from Food Bank of the Rockies. Rothman, a retired electrical contractor from New Jersey, spends about two hours shopping the SECOR aisles and loading his black Volvo with several hundred pounds of food.

“I fill up my car as much as I can, put it in the backseat and take it from there,” he said in a recent phone interview. 

With help from a pair of volunteers, he deposits the loot at a garage in Aurora before ferrying the grub to the food locker four times a week. 

“We put food in it and it’s gone by the end of the day or sooner,” Rothman said.

On a recent Tuesday, Rothman stocked the box with pretzels, Kraft macaroni and cheese and the perennially popular peanut butter. He said people are encouraged to replenish the pantry after swiping some eats, though the system hasn’t quite reached equilibrium.

“People do leave a bit, but in the whole it’s not a lot,” he said.

Last month, Rothman and the Aurora Rotary opened a second free pantry at the district two fire station in the city’s Hoffman Heights neighborhood. Just like the first food bin, the blue and gold structure was erected in an afternoon in early February with the help of a local Boy Scouts troop. 

“They got what they needed for a badge and we got the use of their backs,” Rothman said with a grin. 

The cost of constructing the box on the west side of the fire station, and the ongoing costs associated with schlepping food across the metro area, is covered by a $3,000 grant from The Aurora Gateway Rotary Foundation.

Modeled after the ubiquitous “Little Free Libraries,” the pantries in Aurora were conceived after a rotarian saw a YouTube video describing the project several years ago, Rothman said. 

The new pantry in Hoffman Heights has yet to become as popular as its companion to the north, Rothman said, though he’s optimistic warmer weather will bring more people to the adjacent basketball court and, in turn, the comestible receptacle.

“So far, the neighborhood I think doesn’t know it’s here,” he said. “So they’re not partaking in what we have, but they will. As the weather changes, and kids come to the basketball courts, they’ll see it’s there and get the word out.”

Rothman worked with the city for months to obtain permission to place the box in Hoffman Heights. City staff originally wanted to place the pantry near the Aurora Municipal Center, but Rothman said he thought the goods would be of more use to the residents living near Del Mar Circle. He’s become familiar with many of the area’s residents through his participation in an annual charity event that provides free vaccinations at the firehouse. 

“If they need shots, we thought maybe they could use some food, too,” he said.

Some 10 percent of Colorado residents, and 16 percent of the state’s children lack access to food and are regularly underfed, according to statewide data compiled by the federal government. 

In Arapahoe County, nearly 50,000 people receive federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, though more than 30,000 additional people are eligible to receive such assistance, according to data compiled by a statewide campaign against hunger funded by the Colorado Health Foundation.

And while the Hoffman Heights neighborhood isn’t technically classified as a food desert, or a low-income region more than a mile from a grocery store, much of the Adams County portion of the city less than a mile away from the new pantry carries food desert status, according to data compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

If popularity picks up at either of the free food pantries, Rothman said he’d consider filling the boxes as many as six times a week.

“Eventually, hopefully we can make it to five or six days,” he said. “ … It’s a wonderful thing.”

People interested in donating or learning more about the little free pantries are encouraged to email [email protected]