It broke Angela Mills’ heart to read the concerns outlined in a letter delivered to her on Aug. 28. It had three signatures, all belonging to people she respected, and it relayed rumors that LIFT-UP, in its ramped-up food distribution in the months since COVID-19, likely had not only been inequitable in its services but possibly had shown outright discrimination.
The letter, which became the subject of the first story in a two-part series that debuted in the Monday edition of The Aspen Times, included allegations the signing parties had heard, claiming clients who could not show legal citizenship were denied fresh produce, for example.
To be clear, no documentation of any kind is required to receive food from the nonprofit, which on Monday alone served 306 families in two hours in three simultaneous distribution points, including Carbondale and Glenwood Springs.
“We’ve got Parachute and Rifle tomorrow. Our mission in our hearts is to feed people, regardless of any circumstance, and that’s what we were back out there doing again this morning,” the LIFT-UP executive director said after the conclusion of the organization’s regularly scheduled board of directors meeting on Monday.
Mills allowed that the scrutiny, both in August by the letter and again this week with the attention brought by the local press, created renewed opportunity to introspection and ways to improve their services.
“The meeting opened today with getting us all in the right mindset, and one of my board members — I had to write it down — he said, ‘What we have to remember is we are in this to love. We will move forward in love and compassion without ascent,’” Mills said. “We can’t … it’s not gracious, it’s not the loving thing to go on the defense. We want to work with partners if there are shortcomings, if there are ways we can get better. Help us, have a conversation. I would love to sit down with anyone over virtual coffee to talk about how to make this organization stronger as we move into the future.”
What she absolutely stands by is that the allegations of potential discrimination outlined in the August letter — signed by two Aspen Skiing Co. managers as well as an Aspen Family Connections director, though not in official capacities representing either organization, it seemed — are unfounded.
While some data collection occurs — but is never shared — about clients, most of it is voluntary.
“Especially during COVID, we simplified our intake form, so when people pull up to mobile or they come to Aspen now that we have that pantry reopened for appointment only, we ask for one name of someone residing in the household, how many people in the family, the age of the people in the family and an address and a phone number, should they choose to share that,” she said. “If they’re uncomfortable with a physical address, then just the town [is fine].”
That said, Mills acknowledged that, somewhat ironically, given the controversy, many LIFT-UP clients may experience a language barrier or have worked with different food distribution programs in the past that do require identification of some sort, and so it’s not an irregular occurrence that someone presents a driver’s license unsolicited.
“In even accepting this position two years ago, it was so important to me that we serve all human beings regardless of income, immigration status, religion, any kind of identification. LIFT-UP is here to help humans, that’s it,” she said.
“The reality of living in our beautiful valley, you could have two jobs or dual income and a rent payment, and by the time you pay all that and your gas to get to and from work on your 60-mile commute or whatever it is, maybe you don’t hit the magic number to qualify for SNAP, but that is the essence of LIFT-UP. Thinking that now there could be a barrier or a fear factor in place that is robbing people of the opportunity to come and get needed resources, that has to be dispelled immediately.”
And as for the notion that some people may not receive fresh produce based on who they are or their citizenship, Mills said that any discrepancy in distribution is the unfortunate result of supply and nothing more.
“The way our fresh produce [and meat] is purchased or given to us right now, there’s three different methods: we can purchase from local farmers and ranchers directly — of which, since COVID, we’ve purchased $108,000 with local farmers and ranchers and turned around and gave that food directly to our clients,” Mills explained.
Or, in partnership with Food Bank of the Rockies, LIFT-UP utilizes grocery rescue, in which produce and meat are purchased from grocery stores before hitting expiration dates, thus “rescued” from the compost pile and instead delivered to clients. Finally, the federal government sponsored a COVID Food Assistance Program that provides distribution organizations with delivery methods.
“[Distribution depends] on how much we have at the moment and how many portions we have to divide it into. There is no, ‘This person gets it and this person didn’t.’ What could have happened there, early on, is there is a possibility that maybe we ran out and the car in front of you got something that you saw and you didn’t get it because we unfortunately ran out,” she said.