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Volunteer Ella Riccio, loads food in a vehicle at Community Food Share in Louisville on Friday. (Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer)
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A traffic jam occurred at the University of Colorado Boulder almost every week this summer as hundreds of people lined up to receive free food.

Cars started to queue up along Euclid Avenue at 2:45 p.m. Wednesdays in June and July, winding down 18th Street.

Hannah Wilks, director of the Volunteer Resource Center, was among a team at the front of the line, loading box after box of fresh produce into waiting cars and waiting hands. Apples, onions, potatoes, broccoli, watermelon, celery. Sometimes there were extras such as bacon, chicken, kombucha or pasta.

Volunteers, Poom Nichayapun, left, and Andrew Alexander, hand out food during the CU Boulder Produce Pop Up to anyone who lives in Boulder and Broomfield counties on July 22. (Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer)

CU Boulder and Community Food Share have distributed about 70,000 pounds of food this summer through nine campus produce pop-ups, which began as a way to address increasing food insecurity and hunger caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Fifty-three percent of the more than 3,000 people who received food were students, Wilks said, leading the university to fast-track a permanent, on-campus food pantry.

The pandemic has caused food insecurity and hunger to rise to unprecedented levels in Boulder and Broomfield counties, said Community Food Share spokeswoman Julia McGee. The organization distributed 1.2 million pounds of food in April alone, which is the highest monthly distribution in its almost 40-year history, and it has seen a 33% increase in food distribution since mid-March.

Confronting rising food insecurity in the local and university community means adapting, changing and acting quickly, said those involved in the effort. Just as scientists working to develop a coronavirus vaccine must react to fast-changing information, food pantries, charities and institutions must respond with equal dexterity as the pandemic’s economic fallout continues to impact communities.

“Whatever the time frame is, we are confident that the increased need in our community is going to last much longer than the virus itself,” McGee said. “And we don’t know how long the virus will last.”

‘Trying to fill that need’

Christian Parker was one of dozens of people waiting in line to receive a box of free produce at the July 22 CU Boulder produce pop-up.

Parker works in facilities management on campus and is the sole income earner in her family of seven. She has five children and also supports her mother.

Three of her kids had jobs but were furloughed during the pandemic, leaving only her wages to pay for bills and groceries.

“We’ve always had things tight, but never like this,” she said.

July was particularly difficult.

“It’s trying to figure out whether I’m going to pay a bill or whether I’m going to get food, because with seven people we run out really fast,” she said. “I just had to get all the bills paid and see what was left over.”

She’s been to four of the pop-ups so far and received apples, potatoes, onions and other vegetables. In a recent box she received 15 pounds of bacon.

“That was amazing,” she said. “It went great with bread and eggs — some red meat was a huge thing.”

Everyone at home has enough to eat, Parker said, but it might not be their favorite. No trips to the taco stand or going out to eat, ever. Spaghetti and pasta sides like cheddar broccoli and alfredo are budget meals and can be made in bulk.

Receiving four boxes of fresh produce this summer made a big difference, Parker said.

Volunteer Cynthia Soguero, right, hands out food packages to families and individuals during the CU Boulder Produce Pop Up. The free food was distributed to anyone who lives in Boulder and Broomfield counties on July 22. (Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer)

“I think the community has pulled together in such an amazing way and I’m so proud of Boulder for stepping up and providing the help I need,” she said.

CU Boulder staff members, such as Parker, received 23% of the produce boxes distributed this summer. Undergraduate students made up 24% of the box recipients, graduate students were 29%, faculty members 9% and community members 15%.

While national surveys have shown college students may be more prone to food insecurity than the general population, there is a lack of consensus because of a wide range of numbers reported in different studies. Wilks referenced national surveys that show 30% to 38% of college students struggle with not having enough food, though CU Boulder has not conducted its own survey.

A recent poll by Hunger Free Colorado showed that 37% of Coloradans were struggling to afford food during the pandemic, an increase of 9% in one year.

The fact that more than half of the people showing up to campus produce pop-ups were students was enough to move forward with a permanent food pantry on campus, Wilks said.

“We wouldn’t have done it if we didn’t see the huge need we’ve seen this summer,” Wilks said.

The Volunteer Resource Center has worked on food insecurity since 2016, Wilks said, through mobile food pantries, dining hall meal swipe donation programs, produce pop-ups and grocery store gift card donations.

“We’ve been trying to fill that need for a while, but we’ve been hesitant to start an individualized pantry because there’s a lot of regulations,” Wilks said. “But it was time. COVID really spurred us to centralize our initiatives and recognize that it’s time for CU to continue the work we’ve started and make it bigger and more available.”

The new Buff Pantry will be in the University Memorial Center and provide shelf-stable and fresh groceries for students in need, Wilks said, with a goal of being open to students by Sept. 3. The food will come from Community Food Share, which distributes food to dozens of charities as well as directly to community members. CU Boulder will also conduct donation drives for the pantry.

Fighting a stigma

Because the Volunteer Resource Center is funded by student fees, the Buff Pantry will be exclusively for students, unless the center can find ways to diversify its funding, Wilks said.

Student Body President Isaiah Chavous said student leaders are looking at how to better communicate with students about what they need, as well as the demographics of students with the highest needs. Reaching out to students through social media and other online forums about food assistance might be more effective than mass emails and postings on university-branded platforms, Chavous said.

“Once we can identify what student groups on campus are in highest need, we can readjust those resources to be better placed on campus if it becomes a hindrance for people receiving food. We can reach out to students who are experiencing a food deficit but are unaware that there are resources available to them,” Chavous said.

Part of the challenge in addressing student hunger is the stigma that accompanies it, Chavous said.

“There’s a stigma behind actually addressing some of the needs our students face, and food insecurity is a stigma that needs to be dismantled because we know it’s a real issue,” he said.

Volunteer Poom Nichayapun, center, helps others distribute packages during the CU Boulder Produce Pop Up, in which free food was given to anyone who lives in Boulder and Broomfield counties on July 22. (Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer)

McGee, of Community Food Share, said undergraduate students may be in a uniquely difficult position when confronting food insecurity because there’s some expectation that they’re going to eat cheap food to get by — like endless packages of instant ramen noodles.

“It’s impossible for somebody to thrive in an educational environment when they’re not getting the nutrition they need, so we should be challenging that idea,” McGee said.

Chavous said he is skeptical that that belief is prevalent at CU Boulder because of the university’s demographics. Only 14% of CU Boulder students are eligible for federal Pell grants, which are awarded to students in low-income families.

“I think there’s a stigma around being genuinely hungry or lacking in a particular resource because that speaks to your financial situation,” he said.

But both Chavous and McGee said that not having enough food is not something anyone — including college students — should have to deal with.

“I feel afraid for students who don’t recognize they’re worthy of help. I hate to think there are college students out there who don’t have the money to buy the food they need but feel that that’s expected, and they don’t take the steps they need to get help and access the help our community and food bank is there to give,” McGee said.

Protecting the food chain

Not only did coronavirus lead to a surge in people seeking food assistance, but it also threw a wrench into how organizations similar to Community Food Share distribute food to those who need it.

“This has been the perfect storm for our operation,” McGee said. “Every element of our operation has been challenged because we had to change all the ways we give away food.”

The typical grocery store model of the pantry was no longer an option in the pandemic. Many of the organization’s volunteers, who account for 40% of its labor force, are 65 years or older and at high risk for coronavirus complications, so they stopped volunteering.

Then there was the wave of food chain disruptions, with empty grocery shelves on one end and producers with too much food but no one to sell it to on the other end as restaurants shuttered en masse.

“There were alarming delays in the delivery of food we were purchasing to supplement the food we weren’t receiving, like from grocery stores,” McGee said.

But the abrupt changes brought on by the pandemic forced the organization to pivot quickly to a drive-thru system for food distribution, and programs like the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farmers to Families food boxes has smoothed some of the supply chain problems. The USDA is purchasing produce, dairy and meat from distributors and wholesalers and repackaging it into boxes that community food banks can give away.

Community Food Share is receiving 1,000 boxes a week and distributing them across Boulder and Broomfield counties to partner organizations and at events such as mobile food pantries and produce pop-ups.

While there hasn’t been another record-breaking food distribution month since April, McGee said Community Food Share and its parent organization, Feeding America, anticipate there will be an increased need for food assistance for the foreseeable future.

“It’s been an ebb and a flow, and we expect that to be present for a long time,” she said.

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