Food drive

Volunteer Julia Domingos loads bread items into bags filled with groceries for people in need at the food drive held at the Aspen School District campus on Wednesday afternoon. The food-distribution effort, coordinated by Food Bank of the Rockies in association with LIFT-UP, has been happening at the campus every Wednesday for the past 10 weeks as a response to the economic crisis caused by COVID-19.

A local fundraising effort on behalf of the nonprofit LIFT-UP has a dual purpose: bolstering the supply of healthy, locally grown food and distributing more of it to the rising numbers of those who are in need because of the economic downturn wrought by the COVID-19 situation.

Though the project just got underway, coordinators say they are halfway to their initial goal of $100,000, thanks to a pair of $25,000 matching donations that were provided to the Aspen Community Foundation. But with the needs of individuals and families served through the valleywide LIFT-UP network rising dramatically when compared with pre-coronavirus times, the initial fundraising goal may soon be doubled to $200,000.

LIFT-UP, which has food pantry and thrift store locations throughout the Roaring Fork Valley, has seen demand for food distribution grow quickly — from 675 families monthly to more than 900 families weekly — according to a letter sent to potential donors by Rebecca Mirsky, a fundraising professional who is volunteering her time for the project.

The organization’s seven brick-and-mortar food pantries are currently closed, but efforts to provide supplies at no cost to those who are struggling have continued via drive-through distribution centers from Aspen to Parachute under systems that allow volunteers and people picking up supplies to maintain social-distancing practices.

In Aspen, “emergency food bags” are distributed every Wednesday starting at noon at the public schools campus off Maroon Creek Road. That effort is being coordinated by the nonprofits Food Bank of the Rockies and Aspen Family Connections, in association with LIFT-UP. In Basalt, distribution occurs every Thursday at the middle school and also is managed by Food Bank of the Rockies and LIFT-UP, but with the Aspen Skiing Co. as a partner.

Mirsky’s letter explains that prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, the LIFT-UP team saw the need for “healthier fresh food options beyond the typical nonperishable canned, boxed and bagged foods” that often are laden with extra salt and sugars. The nonprofit received grants from the Colorado Blueprint on Hunger, Hunger Free Colorado and Aspen Community Foundation that allowed for the purchase of fresh meat from Carbondale’s Potter Farms as well as produce from other local farms.

Now, after testing the waters through partnerships with local farmers, farmers markets and a “grocery rescue program” that resulted in the acquisition of more than 371,000 pounds of fresh produce and dairy last year, LIFT-UP hopes to raise the farm-to-pantry concept to “a whole new level,” the letter states.

Essentially, the money that’s being raised now and in the near future will be used to pay valley produce growers and ranchers to supply LIFT-UP and its partners with larger amounts of healthy food products, not only over the next several months but in the long term, Mirsky said.

According to the letter, the expanded program will:

—Support the local economy with the purchase of produce, dairy and beef from regional farmers and ranchers.

—Allow those farms and ranches to plan ahead for crops and needs.

—Offer needed dairy products through Colorado-based dairy farms.

—Provide healthier food options to the underserved population in the Roaring Fork Valley beyond the traditional nonperishable food sources, resulting in potentially fewer negative health impacts.

—Create a system with a lower impact on the environment, with less trucking from outside resources.

Debbie Patrick, marketing and development director for LIFT-UP, said the organization has seen a slight slowdown in the demand for free food supplies in the last couple of weeks. Still, given myriad uncertainties about the future, coordinators working on the fundraising project and establishing relationships with growers and ranchers are moving full speed ahead.

“If we extrapolate our numbers, we’re looking at helping over 2,000 families a month right now, based on the last two weeks,” Patrick said. “At the height of it, it was six times the normal amount. It’s calmed down just a little.”

She said not only have LIFT-UP’s food pantries closed due to COVID-19, but also its soup kitchens and thrift stores. That’s resulted in a financial loss of $102,000 from March through May, a figure that was offset by a $100,000 grant from the Garfield County emergency fund and “tremendous support from the community.”

Plans are in the works to reopen the food pantries, perhaps in mid-June, Patrick said. But like all plans associated with life amid COVID-19, that could change.

She stressed that the expanded project emphasizes distribution of healthy foods over other types of products, such as nonperishable canned goods, that LIFT-UP has provided in the past.

Aside from the need arising from the economic crisis, “There’s so much support for this effort, too, from a health perspective,” she said. “By people eating healthier foods, it reduces the number of people needing medical attention or having health issues.

“Adding fresh dairy, produce and fruits reduces sugars and the sodium content that you have in so many canned items. Bringing a healthier diet will mean a healthier community,” Patrick added.

Financial donations are needed and can be made on the LIFT-UP’s website, liftup.org, or sent via mail to P.O. Box 1928, Rifle, CO 81650.

Andre is a reporter for Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at andre@aspendailynews.com.