Retired landscaper Eugene Rodriguez relies on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — generally known as food stamps — and regular visits to pantries to stretch his $800 a month pension and extra income from odd jobs.
“I don’t have money for food,” Rodriguez said as he stepped into the Denver Rescue Mission Wednesday for a Thanksgiving meal. “I have money for rent and gas and light, but no money for food. It’s hard on a limited income.”
Kevin Baker, Denver Rescue Mission’s food services manager, said he hoped to not just feed Rodriguez and hundreds of other guests on Wednesday, but lift their spirits a little.
Baker worked for Disney for two decades before retiring and coming to Denver, where he overseas 1,800 to 1,900 meals a day for guests at his faith-based nonprofit, which operates three overnight shelters and, at 2222 Lawrence St. in Five Points, a drop-in center. For Thanksgiving, Baker turned to his experience not in huge amusement park restaurants, but at home in his native Texas.
“We made dressing and not stuffing, because I grew up on stuffing,” Baker said.
Wednesday’s menu was inspired by meals “that I sat around the table with my grandmother eating,” he said.
“Food can bring back positive memories,” he said.
In addition to the dressing, Baker’s six staff chefs and dozens of volunteers prepared from scratch roast turkey, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes and gravy, dinner rolls and other traditional favorites. The meals were served at the Lawrence Street Community Center by volunteers who included Gov. Jared Polis and his husband Marlon Reis, former Gov. John Hickenlooper, City Councilwoman-at-large Debbie Ortega and Mayor Michael Hancock.
Hancock, hearing landscaper Rodriguez’s story, said it reminded him of moments in his own childhood.
“We know that there are a lot of families like that in Denver, in Colorado,” the mayor added after collecting two heaping plates from a row of steam platters and delivering the meals to guests seated at long tables.
Earlier Wednesday, Hancock said, he signed into law a measure he believes will help. Under the minimum wage measure passed by City Council earlier this week, workers who currently make the minimum wage of $11.10 will make $12.85 starting Jan. 1, 2020, $14.77 in 2021 and $15.87 in 2022. After 2022 the minimum wage will be pegged to the consumer price index.
Some business owners have said the costs could be hard to absorb. But Hancock has said raising the minimum wage supports “families who must choose between putting food on the table and paying rent or buying medicine.”
Rodriguez said he had never visited the Denver Rescue Mission before. In apparent reference to stigma attached to seeking help, he made clear before sitting down to his meal that “I’m not drunk. No drugs. I’m just hungry.”
Last year, 600 people ate at the Denver Rescue Mission’s Great Thanksgiving Banquet, spokeswoman Nicole Tschetter said. This year, with cold temperatures expected to bring in more people, the organization had prepared to feed 1,000, and fed 805, she said.