YMCA of Metro Denver branches out into free food distribution

More than 130,000 pounds of food have been distributed at four Ys since March.

Enrique Moore, Robyn Hills and Marcus Thomas unload boxes from the USDA to the Southwest Family YMCA's food pantry. July 24, 2020.

Enrique Moore, Robyn Hills and Marcus Thomas unload boxes from the USDA to the Southwest Family YMCA's food pantry. July 24, 2020.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Donna Bryson. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The YMCA is typically a gym, a place to play basketball or practice yoga. But since the pandemic struck, YMCA of Metro Denver branches have offered free bread, milk, yogurt and fresh fruits and vegetables.

Robyn Hills, director of volunteer engagement for the YMCA of Metro Denver, said that while operating a food pantry is new for her organization, being responsive is not.

“The Y’s role really changes based on the needs of the community,” Hills said.

The city estimates that since COVID-19 led to an economic slowdown, the portion of Denver residents who cannot be sure of getting enough to eat has increased from 11 percent to about a quarter of the population. Hills said she has seen her neighbors lose jobs. She lives near the Southwest Family YMCA, just north of Fort Logan National Cemetery, one of four locations where Hills has since March overseen the distribution of more than 130,000 pounds of food so far.

Lydia Raber and Rhonda Harshbarger pack bags of food at the Southwest Family YMCA. July 24, 2020.

Lydia Raber and Rhonda Harshbarger pack bags of food at the Southwest Family YMCA. July 24, 2020.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Food is available to anyone who comes to Southwest at 5181 West Kenyon Ave. on Fridays between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.; a YMCA office at 13693 East Iliff Ave. in Aurora on Mondays between 3 p.m. and 6 pm.; the Glendale Sports Center at 4500 East Kentucky Ave. on Mondays between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m.; and the Susan M. Duncan Family YMCA at 6350 Eldridge Street in Arvada on Tuesdays between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m.

When she started the pantries, Hills turned first to the Food Bank of the Rockies, which had provided snacks for Y children’s programs. The food bank continues to supply the Ys, and Hills also now gets food from a USDA program, Russ Davis Wholesale in Pueblo, and Meadow Gold Dairy in Englewood. Pepsico has loaned drivers and trucks to get the food from the donors to the Ys.

Cars started lining up in the parking lot 10 minutes before distribution began Friday at Southwest for boxes and bags of grapes, squash, melons, tomatoes and other food.

Masked volunteers bring pre-packed boxes and bags to the cars, where masked drivers pop open trunks for loading. Hills turned to some of her own volunteers, people who used to oversee basketball tournaments or raise funds, to help with the packing and distribution. The crew Friday included a 14-year-old who will be a high school sophomore in the fall, and a woman who has volunteered at the Y longer than the teen has been alive. Some smaller pantries in the Denver area had to stop operating during the pandemic because volunteers on whom they relied were over 60, an age that put them at high risk for the worst effects of the coronavirus.

Lydia Raber and Rhonda Harshbarger pack bags of food at the Southwest Family YMCA. July 24, 2020.

Lydia Raber and Rhonda Harshbarger pack bags of food at the Southwest Family YMCA. July 24, 2020.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Among those picking up free groceries on Friday was a couple whose son and daughter-in-law had lost their jobs and moved in with their two children, straining the couple’s retirement income. A woman had quit a job to go back to school and had just started looking for work again when the pandemic struck.

Robyn Hills (left) helps load boxes of food into Michele Andersen's car outside of the Southwest Family YMCA. July 24, 2020.

Robyn Hills (left) helps load boxes of food into Michele Andersen's car outside of the Southwest Family YMCA. July 24, 2020.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Maeva Louise and Jace Carter moved to Denver from Portland, Ore., just before the pandemic struck.

“The opportunities that were available when I got here started to to disappear,” said Carter, a photographer and tattoo artist.

They left an apartment they’d had downtown and moved into a friend’s garage when their life in a new city was “just ripped out from under us in the blink of an eye,” said Louise, a model and photographer.

On Friday, Louise and Carter were in their own car inline at the food pantry. They had heard they could get fresh fruits and vegetables.

“We’re both vegans,” Carter said. “The produce is … awesome as far as I’m concerned.”

A look inside a USDA food box delivered to the Southwest Family YMCA. July 24, 2020.

A look inside a USDA food box delivered to the Southwest Family YMCA. July 24, 2020.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Steven LaMunyon’s parents are buried in Fort Logan, he said, glancing toward rows of grave markers just visible across the street. LaMunyon had just picked up a box of food. He balanced the box on the handlebars of his bike and prepared to wheel it to a nearby park where he lives.

LaMunyon said he had taken advantage of a program at the Southwest Y that allowed him and other people experiencing homelessness to shower once a week.

“The YMCA would really help if they could fire up that program,” LaMunyon said. Still, “it’s good to see them open as they are. Things are slowly getting back to normal. Whatever that means.”

Ys had mostly closed because of the coronavirus, but their emergency programs include childcare for essential workers. Last month, the Y began a gradual re-opening, offering fitness and other classes with capacity at about half normal, Hills said.

Hills has support from USDA to continue the food distribution at least through August.

After that, “there’s no plan set in place quite yet,” she said. “But we’re working on it.”

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