For months, Liz Watts has been searching for a new Aurora location for the food pantry she started just before the pandemic began in 2020.
Her wishlist is relatively short: air conditioning, adequate parking and a ground level entrance for shoppers who are elderly or disabled.
“You’d be surprised how hard that is to find. But, you know, the biggest bar to clear is the discrimination. That is my biggest problem,” she said in October, after looking for six months. “Once people hear what I do it’s, ‘Oh, no, we don’t want your kind of business in this complex.’ That’s what they say. They don’t even try to hide it.”
Watts formed Food Connect Colorado just before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. She had visions of a “client choice” operation, which looks much like a normal grocery store. Those in need of food could stop in, grab a basket and pick up pantry items, fresh produce, meat, bread and more.
That all changed in March 2020 when nearly all food pantries switched to drive–thrus to curb spreading the respiratory virus.
Instead of stocking shelves at a shop, Watts and a group of volunteers would put together boxes of food for people in need, and there were a lot of people in need, she said, especially when layoffs started.
One day each week, from May through November 2020, Watts and her crew would hand out 144 boxes of food at Del Mark Park in central Aurora.
“That was the limit our truck could hold. And those 144 boxes were usually gone in an hour and fifteen minutes…We almost always ran out before we could serve everyone (in the line.) Some people couldn’t come then, they’d have work or kids at school or something. They couldn’t come until like 3:30 p.m. or 4 p.m. And they’d show up and everything would be gone. We’d turn people away every week. Every week.”
When pandemic restrictions waned and Watts and her volunteers were forced from the parking lot, the pantry was moved into a warehouse on Airport Boulevard in eastern Aurora. Each Thursday, the pantry opened and served about 48 households.
The people Food Connect Colorado served were moms and dads, grandparents, people barely surviving on government assistance. Some were disabled. Mostly all of them worked. They were thankful for the resource, Watts said, especially when they also had to divert most of their income to the rising cost of housing, health care, and often childcare.
But that’s not the clientele most leasing agents Watts has met with envision when they learn she is looking for a space for a food pantry, even as she presents data about the people who were visiting the pantry, a quarter of them households with school-aged children.
“They just didn’t want to hear it. They’ve already got in their mind this image of the derelict druggie,” she said. “It’s not those people at all…They’re not sitting around at home and coming in and getting their free food.”
Building or complex representatives expressed worries over having more homeless people on the premises too, though Watts would explain that wasn’t really who was seeking out food pantries.
“Homeless people can’t cook. In all of my food banking years we would occasionally get a homeless person, but it’s not really helpful to them. They have no place to cook,” she said. “Our first question was, ‘Do you have a can opener?’ Because if you don’t, you can’t even open a can of fruit. None of them have any sort of heating or cooking. They can maybe sneak into the 7 Eleven and heat something in the microwave.”
Hunger Free Colorado estimated in 2021 that one in three Coloradans lack access to nutritional food. That statistic was down compared to the height of the pandemic, but the organization says it’s still a historical high for the state. Households with children face even higher levels of hunger, 44% struggle with access to food.
Between Adams and Arapahoe counties, according to non-profit Feeding America, a little more than 100,000 people are considered food insecure.
Hunger Free Colorado has been working with state lawmakers since 2018 to fund the Food Pantry Assistance Grant program, which Watts took advantage of during the pandemic. The goal of the grant is to provide pantries with healthier options: “high-quality fresh produce, meat, and dairy, ideally from Colorado-based producers.”
In 2020, with the arrival of pandemic federal aid dollars, the legislature removed a $20,000 cap on individual grants and a requirement that purchased food had to be certified Colorado Proud. More importantly to Watts, the bill allowed 20% of funds to be used on indirect expenses, double what the grant normally permits.
Dana Wood, who works with the Colorado Blueprint to End Hunger to distribute the funds approved by the state legislature each year, told the Sentinel nutritious food is in high demand, especially in communities where it’s more difficult to access.
“This funding makes a huge impact….I’m hearing from food pantries that their numbers are only increasing. More people are coming, with inflation being really high. I think now we’re starting to hear about layoffs in organizations. There’s just an overall food supply chain issue. So all of those things converge,” she said. “(Pantries) are not able to keep up. They’re still seeing really high numbers, and wanting to provide really high quality, nutritious foods that are hard to get because of either cost or because they’re just not available.”
Getting food is the least of Watts’ worries, however. There’s more than enough from local grocers and Food Bank of the Rockies to supply a pantry, Watts said. Without pantries, perfectly fine food is dumped in the garbage at the end of the day.
“It’s crazy that it’s all here, and all I have to do is come and get it and put it where people can come and get it. That’s basically what food insecurity is. It’s a logistical problem,” she said.
More than anything, she needs money for operating expenses.
“I need money for rent, utilities, and refrigeration. That’s what you can’t afford and that’s what most of us food banks need money for, because most of (us) are operating on a shoestring,” Watts said.
Providing grant opportunities for those sorts of expenses isn’t as easy.
“It’s a little more difficult to find funders that will fund people, and transportation and storage, things that aren’t as exciting to fund but are actually a really needed resource in order to keep up with demand,” Wood said. “I’m hearing both, that people still need money for food, because they’re seeing lots of people, and they want nutritious food. But they also want to pay folks for their time. Things break down. They need to pay for repairs on refrigeration. They need to pay rent and utilities, so I definitely am hearing more of that need.”
Last July, when Watts moved into the Airport Boulevard location the rent was $1,880 per month. Renewing came with a $500 monthly increase, which didn’t seem practical for a location that was extremely hot during the summer, had little parking and wasn’t very accessible for seniors or people with disabilities.
Her search for a new location has led Watts to shopping centers, meetings with local government officials, town halls, and almost a spot on the Community College of Aurora’s Lowry Campus, but a technicality of the land being federally owned meant it can only be used for educational purposes. Three months of planning and excitement ended abruptly.
Watts sees Food Connect Colorado as a way to help people from facing even more dire situations, like eviction — which can throw people into a vicious loop of hardship that’s nearly impossible to escape — or forgoing important medication or medical attention.
“Coming to us made all the difference in the world, because if they got their groceries from us they could use their money, their disability or Social Security to pay the rent, or buy their medicine,” she said. “These people are all living on the edge.They’re just hanging on by their fingernails.”
City of Aurora staff and lawmakers have talked often over the last several years about measures that keep people from becoming homeless, such as rental assistance, but funding food pantries isn’t a “core service” despite there being pockets of food insecurity throughout the city, Aurora Director of Housing and Community Services Jessica Prossner said. The city has provided some food pantry funding, especially during the pandemic.
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, either. While some people need prepared food, like Meals on Wheels, others just need help accessing it.
“Sometimes a very large food pantry is not as meaningful as other services where people are already gathered” such as a church, she said.
Watts has sought out help from city staff and her own councilmember, but it’s done little to help secure a location for the pantry.
“It’s just not something the private sector is willing or able to take over,” Aurora City Councilmember Juan Marcano said. “It’s also happening with housing, healthcare and more. I would like to see us tackling this issue with public investment.”
In the meantime, Watts is still searching.
“I keep looking, but a lot of these places that I’ve looked at, I’ve already called and they’ve told me no,” she said earlier this month.
Ideally, she wants to operate the pantry in Aurora, where she lives and sees a need. But she’s considered looking outside city limits, maybe in Denver’s Montbello neighborhood or near Glendale.
“I’m so desperate,” she said. “I’m thinking of posting on NextDoor. That’s when you know you’re desperate.”