Food banks overwhelmed, struggle to replace elderly workers
By Hendrik Sybrandy
Cans of food in stock at one of the food banks in the U.S. /VCG

Cans of food in stock at one of the food banks in the U.S. /VCG

These are busy times at Denver Inner City Parish, a nonprofit organization in the U.S. state of Colorado that provides food and other services to people and families struggling to get by, especially during this pandemic.

"Right now we're pushing out about 420 boxes of food a week, which is easily double what we would normally do," said Michael Bruno, Parish Hunger Programs Coordinator.

Lines outside food banks around the U.S. have been unprecedented in recent weeks. Many facilities have been forced to purchase more food ​to meet the demand, while donations are well below normal ​levels.

"And that is what we anticipate will cost us many millions of dollars over the several months of this pandemic response," said Erin Pulling, Food Bank of the Rockies CEO.

Staffing is also an issue.

"I answer phones, I greet people that come in for resources, I hand out diapers, toiletries," said Rita Jaramillo, who works the front desk for Denver Inner City Parish Employee.

But she can't do any of that right now. Her job is on hold. She's been told to stay in her apartment. At age 65, she's in a group that's considered particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.

"I'm doing what I'm supposed to do," Jaramillo said. "I don't want this virus to spread."

The elderly make up a good number of the employees and volunteers who, in normal times, keep food banks and pantries running. So when they're housebound, their absence is felt.

"At the front desk, you know, we're getting easily over a hundred phone calls a day," Bruno said. "We're trying to meet a massively increased need with a lower number of people … It just makes it logistically challenging."

Food Bank of the Rockies in Denver has turned to younger people, like members of the Boys and Girls Club, for help.

"So we have successfully rebuilt that volunteer force," Pulling said.
Meantime, the main parish building is closed ​to the public. Folks who continue to distribute food outdoors have taken on added responsibilities, but the risks are always there.

"If one of them gets sick, then the whole operation could have to shut down," Bruno said. "It's just a continuously evolving situation."

Jaramillo has been home for the past month now and feels her job tugging at her.

"The parish has always been open to help people. This is all new," Jaramillo said. "A lot of the clients, I miss them, you know what I mean? I worry about them. I think about them."

It may be a while before she's back on the front lines to help. "You got to do what you got to do right?" she said.