IFCS food bank 'feeding the masses' despite plunging food donations

As need soars, aid organization gets creative; future uncertain

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With tens of thousands of Denver-area residents out of work amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Integrated Family Community Services, one of the area's largest food banks, has seen its client load skyrocket.

The southwest Denver organization is now serving up to 3,200 people a month, a 1,600% increase from normal for this time of year, said outreach director Todd McPherson.

“The floodgates opened,” McPherson said. “We're truly feeding the masses here.”

As the ranks of the needy swelled, IFCS did what it has done for more than 50 years: Adapt.

While clients normally grab a cart and “shop” the food bank's shelves, the organization has switched to pre-packaged food boxes, sent out the door on a conveyor belt.

Clients no longer must fill out forms, or prove need or residency to receive food.

“The last thing we want to do is put someone through the gauntlet of red tape,” McPherson said. “Now, you call, tell us you're coming, pull up, and boom, you've got your food. Doesn't matter who you are. There's nothing to prove. Hungry people are hungry people.”

The food bank is a godsend to Jose Hernandez, a father of five who was making his second visit to IFCS on May 21.

“It's an awful feeling” to see bare cabinets, said Hernandez, a countertop installer who has been out of work since March and has had a hard time accessing unemployment benefits. “As a father, you feel that big responsibility to provide. These guys are keeping my kids fed. I'm really grateful.”

In order to keep its often elderly volunteers safe, IFCS sent everyone home except eight paid staff members, who are handling the deluge themselves.

At the same time, the institutions that normally run food drives -- churches, schools, offices -- are closed. Monetary donations have dwindled as people still working are watching their budgets. With bans on large gatherings, IFCS is unable to hold in-person fundraising events that net big checks from philanthropists.

With the flow of donations drying up, IFCS beefed up its relationship with Food Bank of the Rockies, bringing in food by the pallet instead of the bag. Next, they struck deals with food manufacturers and school districts whose normal avenues of distribution are interrupted.

The arrangements mean some people receive odd items -- five-pound sacks of meatballs, jumbo-size pork roasts, sacks of marinara sauce meant for cafeterias -- but the important thing is they're going home with food.

“We're hoping people can share with others in need,” McPherson said.

Thanks to other arrangements, clients also receive boxes of fresh produce, and parents can request diapers, formula and milk. Eggs and bread are on the menu too.

To make sure hungry families receive well-rounded nutrition, IFCS is also raiding its stockpile of shelf-stable foods intended for the winter holidays.

“We don't know what we'll do come Thanksgiving and Christmas,” McPherson said. “That food is all flying out the door.”

In order to make room for food stockpiles, the group's clothing bank is suspended. The status of other programs, like school supply distribution in late summer, is unclear.

The future may be uncertain, but for now, IFCS staff are simply grateful they can help keep bellies full, McPherson said.

“Some people tell us they're embarrassed to be here,” McPherson said. “They say they feel dirty coming to a food bank. Why? Everyone needs help sometimes, and these are strange times. That's what we're here for.”

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