Food Bank of the Rockies celebrates 40 years, from a church pantry to a two-state operation

A large volume of onions in bags at Food Bank of the Rockies' warehouse in Aurora, Nov. 13, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

A large volume of onions in bags at Food Bank of the Rockies' warehouse in Aurora, Nov. 13, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Donna Bryson. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

It all began with the pasta.

It was the 1970s and Kathy Groth had been running the food pantry at her church, downtown’s Central Presbyterian, and pestering stores to donate instead of discard groceries. She was among the people known for addressing hunger and food waste who got calls when a supermarket warehouse manager found himself stuck with a load of unsold pasta. Groth drove over in her Volvo to collect a donation.

“The car ahead of me was two habited nuns in a Volkswagen Beetle,” Groth recalled.

She knew then there had to be a better way. She started talking to like-minded people about her vision of a warehouse where trucks could bring large donations and small nonprofits could send volunteers to pick up supplies.

Thursday, Groth was in Montbello at the Food Bank of the Rockies’s vast warehouse, decked for the evening with white table cloths, a carving station and a deejay to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the nonprofit that grew out of the idea she had sitting behind that Beetle.

“This is just what I wanted,” Groth said, gesturing wide with her arms.

“Look outside the door: Trucks!” she said, and laughed.

“The only thing that bothers me is that the need and the waste are still here.”

If Groth represents the beginnings, Erin Pulling is the future. Pulling — six weeks into her job as CEO of the food bank that serves metro Denver, northern, eastern and western Colorado and all of Wyoming — met Groth for the first time Thursday. The two were soon chatting like old colleagues.

Kathy Groth, right, who founded the organization that would grow into the Food Bank of the Rockies, chats with food bank CEO Erin Pulling at the nonprofit's 40th anniversary celebration on Feb. 28. (Donna Bryson/Denverite)

Kathy Groth, right, who founded the organization that would grow into the Food Bank of the Rockies, chats with food bank CEO Erin Pulling at the nonprofit's 40th anniversary celebration on Feb. 28. (Donna Bryson/Denverite)

Pulling said she has been learning her job by talking to her staff of more than 100. She plans one-on-one time with each and has been struck by the passion all bring to the job. She added that many volunteers — thousands supplement the staff — have experienced food insecurity themselves.

“If any of us doesn’t think that our families have been impacted by hunger or food insecurity, they just need to look around,” she said. “It’s harder and harder to afford to live, no matter where you live, particularly in metro Denver.”

Pulling helped out when Food Bank of the Rockies stepped-up distribution during the federal government shutdown.  She met a woman who was collecting food for herself and her two children. The woman asked whether she could take extra to a neighbor with three children who had been unable to come because of a back injury.

“It feels good to be in the position of saying yes,” Pulling said.

In January she hosted Gov. Jared Polis, who filmed a PSA at the warehouse to urge Coloradans to donate to help food banks replenish their stocks after they faced increased demand following the shutdown.

Food Bank of the Rockies CEO Erin Pulling during a press conference at the food bank's warehouse on Monday, Jan. 28, 2019, in Denver. (Esteban L. Hernandez/Denverite)

Food Bank of the Rockies CEO Erin Pulling during a press conference at the food bank's warehouse on Monday, Jan. 28, 2019, in Denver. (Esteban L. Hernandez/Denverite)

Pulling said the bank would soon be embarking on a strategic planning process that would address, among other issues, how to work with partners on advocacy.

She added: “I want to look at what our nutritional practices are and how they are evaluated.”

Pulling came to Food Bank of the Rockies from Project Angel Heart, which was founded in 1991 to ensure that people living with HIV/AIDS had nutritious meals. It later expanded to people living with cancer, congestive heart failure and other life-threatening illnesses. The food bank’s mission is broader, but good nutrition is part of it, Pulling said, noting a quarter of the food distributed is fresh produce.

In fiscal year 2017-2018, Food Bank of the Rockies distributed enough food for more than 53 million meals. It rescued more than 22 million pounds of food that retailers such as King Soopers, Safeway and Starbucks might otherwise have thrown away. It also distributed federal food aid. And the bank used cash donations to buy food, often fresh produce that can be hard to access.

“It’s so enormous and it’s still not enough,” Pulling said of the bank’s operations. “There are still hungry people.”

“You get such wonderful stuff,” Groth told Pulling.

Groth said her first official donation 40 years ago was a load of bananas from a store whose name she can’t now recall. They were “just barely speckled,” she said. It was holiday time.

“Every Christmas basket in the city that year had bananas,” she said.

Forty years ago, Jimmy Carter was president, Dick Lamm was Colorado’s governor and Mayor William McNichols had led Denver since 1968. Denver’s population grew from 1.1 million at the start of the 1970s to 1.6 million by decade-end. Inflation was also booming, from 6.4 percent to 16 percent in 1979. The average sale price of a home went from $24,630 in 1970 to $65,797 on Jan. 1, 1980. A story in the Rocky Mountain News the summer of 1979 discussed the “professionalization of volunteerism,” with the idea of paying someone well to run a nonprofit gaining traction and universities offering degrees in nonprofit management.

Back then Groth’s operation was called the Colorado Food Clearinghouse. Groth started with a $75,000 federal grant. She filled out the application on a rented typewriter. She had taken trips to Arizona and Colorado Springs to learn what was happening in food rescue in other cities and gotten some grant-writing advice from a friend. Once she had the money, she turned again to her network of advisers and friends and learned of a Catholic school at 33rd and Pecos that was not in use. Soon, Groth and colleagues were filling the classrooms with pallets of food. Other nonprofits joined hers in the school they dubbed the Call to Action Building.

Groth and her husband Mark, who accompanied her to the anniversary party Thursday, had come to Denver in the mid-1970s from Nebraska after he got out of the Army. Mark, now a high school teacher, first got a job in the media department at the University of Colorado hospital, then at Ninth Avenue and Colorado. Groth sought out volunteer opportunities.

“I come from a line of do-gooders,” she said.

In her small hometown of Plattsmouth, Nebraska, she said, it was hard to overlook the struggles of neighbors. Her father was a food broker, traveling the country connecting grocery stores with manufactures. His daughter also makes connections around food.

In her early days in Denver Groth was aghast to find some grocery stores not only discarding but pouring bleach over unsold loaves for fear someone sickened by moldy bread would sue. In addition to starting what would become Food Bank of the Rockies, Groth helped state Sen. Don MacManus — who like her father was involved in the food industry — write a law protecting those who donated food in good faith from civil or criminal prosecution. A later federal law, 1996’s Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, brought further assurance.

Once she got her food bank started Groth didn’t stay long. She urged the board of directors she had assembled to hire a professional director. She watched the organization move several times and grow. Groth applauds the name change, saying it has an appealing ring.

She and her husband now live in Aurora and volunteer for the food pantry run by the Southeast Church of Christ.  Thursday morning, they’d been out picking up food in the latest in a series of Volvos.

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