Denver is relying on nonprofits to help feed new immigrants, and it’s been tough, unpredictable work

Food is expensive and the city hasn’t been helping with funding.
12 min. read
Hector Apilla helps Doris Deleon grab groceries at the Inner City Parish’s weekly food pantry event in La Alma/Lincoln Park. March 24, 2024.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Maria Mendoza stood at the side entrance of the Denver Inner City Parish with a fistful of deli-style numbered tickets. It's the Parish's Saturday food pantry drive. Outside, a large crowd of about 50 people, sitting in lawn chairs in the sun or leaning against walls in the shade, wait to hear their number.

As more people walk up, Mendoza helps them fill out forms and gives them a number. A woman asked if the numbers were in order, because hers was so high. No, Mendoza said, adding that there were a lot of people there that day.

Mendoza has been a food pantry volunteer with the Parish for more than five years. This is the most people she’s seen in need during her tenure.

“Before the migrants, there were like 30 people already on line. Maybe 20. But now, when we start giving out numbers at 8:45, it’s already like 60, 70 people outside,” Mendoza said. “We have a lot of families. We can’t stop helping.”

Maria Mendoza invites people in to access the Inner City Parish's weekly food pantry event in La Alma/Lincoln Park. March 24, 2024.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

As of April 10, Denver has helped over 40,800 new immigrants since December 2022.

About half of the newcomers settle in the city. Denver officials say they’ve spent about $68 million on its response to new arrivals.

The money has covered transportation to different cities and shelter here. It’s also gone to nonprofits who are contracted with the city to assist new immigrants with case management and housing needs. City officials have noted how hard they’ve leaned on nonprofits to assist in the new immigrant response.

“The nonprofits have been absolutely crucial to our success,” said Jon Ewing, communications specialist for Denver Human Services.

“They have been out there going day and night to not only get people out of the shelters and into housing but then doubling back to make sure that they're paying bills on time or doubling back and saying, hey, this person hasn't figured it out yet, hasn't lined up a place yet. What can we do? They've got to go nonstop.”

But what about the nonprofits who aren’t contracted with the city? Especially those who run food pantries who are constantly seeing increases whether from new immigrants or food inflation?

While strain is being felt all around, many smaller nonprofits – especially those who run food pantries – are saying they aren’t seeing much assistance from the city, which is touting an “all-in” mentality.

With or without the city assistance, Larry Martinez, the executive director of the City Parish, said the organizations can’t and won’t stop. The need is too great.

Martinez said in recent months the Parish experienced a 300% increase in its food pantry services. They aren’t the only ones.

Donna Garnett, the executive director of Montbello Organizing Committee, said their food pantry partners including Struggle of Love Foundation and
Colorado Changemakers Collective, have seen similar increases.

MOC, which is located in far northeast Denver near one of the newcomer shelters, conducted a point-in-time survey of new immigrants to get a sense of who they are, where they are getting help and what they need.

They received 101 responses – and what people need is food.

Mariana Del Hierro, executive director of Re:Vision, said food insecurity is high for everyone but their 200% increase in their no-cost grocery store services is due to new immigrants.

And while things are running, del Hierro said the nonprofit hasn’t had to scale back on other services, things can also come to a halt.

“We’re a scrappy team and we’re a nonprofit,” del Hierro said. “We're not a city government. But I'm very confident in the goodwill of our community and the city and funders and donors that will make sure that we don't reach a breaking point. At least, that's my Christmas wish.”

Re:Vision's regular food pantry in their Morrison Road event space. April 9, 2024.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

City officials are aware of the strain food pantries are facing but a city path to ease that struggle hasn’t yet been presented.

So, like del Hierro said, nonprofits are getting scrappy.

Reuben Gregory, the Parish’s food pantry manager, said he’s tapping into his creative side to find new food resources, especially free ones.

That looks like finding new grocery stores that offer free food, which is food they can’t sell. Working with organizations such as the East Denver Food Hub, We Don’t Waste and the Food Bank of the Rockies on what free options they have to add to the food purchased from the organizations.

Getting crafty each week is slightly working. The food pantry is operational and, similar to Re:Vision, program cuts aren’t occurring. But with flexibility, also comes uncertainty.

“We can't afford to buy as much or all the food that we need because our budgets are from grants and grants are limited…. It’s a static budget and honestly when our fiscal year's up, we don't know what grants we have beyond that and that's July first,” Gregory said.

“It’s a little nerve-wracking,” he said. “Every Friday comes and I'm like, do we have our fridge full for Saturday? Because if we don't, there's all these people that are still going to be here expecting, not in an entitled way, but hoping for a full box of food.”

Volunteers with Laborers' International Union of North America hand out groceries at the Inner City Parish's weekly food pantry in La Alma/Lincoln Park. March 24, 2024.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Food insecurity is a constant issue in the city that can affect everyone. Just like food costs.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, all food prices in 2024 are predicted to increase by 2.5%, a steady rise that started during the pandemic.

Erin Pulling, president and CEO of Food Bank of the Rockies, said between food prices increasing, COVID benefits ending and food donations remaining stagnant, food pantries are in a hole.

Food services have increased 31% at FBR and costs have tripled. Pulling said the organization has also needed to pivot to serve newcomers who walk up to their facility in Montbello, a service they don’t offer there. In August, the group began giving out emergency relief bags specifically to new immigrants. They’ve distributed about 24,000 bags.

“Inflation overall, but especially in food items, is putting a lot of families in the position of having to make a choice between whether or not they can put food on the table or pay another essential bill,” Erin Pulling, president and CEO of Food Bank of the Rockies (FBR). “With that, and now with our newly arrived neighbors, what we're seeing is a tremendous increase in need.”

Meanwhile, the city is focused on securing housing and work visas for new immigrants. Without these two things, Ewing said, the risk of homelessness is too high to ignore.

“If somebody falls into homelessness, it makes everything that much harder,” Ewing said. “They don't want to be reliant on the system, but the system is forcing them to be reliant in some ways because it's not allowing them to stand on their own two feet.”

The city recently announced their new migrant response plan that sees a pivot from emergency sheltering to the focus on housing, rent and food assistance and job training for six months.

A majority of the city’s funding resources for new migrants are going to contracted nonprofits focused on housing and case management efforts, such as Servicios de la Raza and ViVe Wellness.

Food assistance in the new migrant response program will come in the form of monthly debit cards, said Sarah Plastino, head of the Newcomer Program with DHS. The amount of money on the card will be determined by family size and personal funds. They will also be given out by an unnamed nonprofit.

It’s unclear if new immigrants are already receiving these cards.

Marilu Velasquez hands out eggs during the regular food pantry giveaway inside Re:Vision's cultural center on Morrison Road. Feb. 13, 2024.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Ewing said mini grants for $10,000 have been awarded to smaller organizations to also assist in the effort, including the Village Exchange Center and Focus Points Family Resource Center.

A similar process may be taken to help food pantries.

City officials said they’ve begun looking at using funds from the Healthy Food for Denver's Kids Initiative to ease the strain on nonprofit food providers.

The Healthy Food program was created through a 2018 voter-approved sales tax increase of .08%, or about a penny for every $10 spent. The money is then awarded to groups who provide healthy meals, snacks or food education classes to Denverite kids.

The Denver Department of Public Health & Environment, who runs the program, said they “recognize the increased food need in the community with the influx of newcomers in Denver.”

Details aren’t ironed out but by mid-April, DDPHE is hoping to open up an application allowing organizations to apply for funding to ease the strain. The application would open “sometime in April and close sometime in May.”

It would give groups up to $50,000 in a one-year deal “to provide healthy and culturally responsive food to newcomer youth who are residing/staying in the City and County of Denver (this may include serving newcomer youth who are unhoused or are experiencing unstable housing),” officials said.

Ahtziri Rodriguez hands out produce during the regular food pantry giveaway inside Re:Vision's cultural center on Morrison Road. Feb. 13, 2024.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

DDPHE believes they can provide funding for about 12 organizations and “HFDK may award up to $600,000 total as part of this specific funding opportunity.”

In the interim, the work continues and the wait for help and communication from the city is on the back burner.

Pulling said Food Bank of the Rockies has spoken with DHS about how the organization can help. Resources are slim with FBR but they have “massive purchasing and food distribution power” and with that power they can essentially purchase three meals for a family for $1. But Pulling said the city hasn’t identified where FBR can be of help.

Martinez said he’d like to be more in the loop of what the city is working on in their new immigrant response – unless there’s just nothing to be in the loop about.

“I think the biggest challenge is that there is nothing,” Martinez said. “There's nothing for them to communicate about because they have nothing to really offer… But there could be more engagement with the community around the commitment of big funds.”

Del Hierro agreed that communication has been slow while the city figures things out on their side.

But del Hierro notes that Denver is trying. In neighboring Aurora, nonprofits have had to form their own coalition, the Migrant Response Network of Northwest Aurora, because the city of Aurora and Arapahoe County aren’t stepping in to help.

But the maybe fabled grants would help.

“It would always be great to find additional funds,” del Hierro said. “But, it’s not an option to not help. We are here to provide necessary resources to the community. Every time we see the numbers go up by 50 or by 100, I check in with my team and I say, how are we doing… Every time without thinking twice, my team says this is our job. This is what we have to do. So, we do it.”

On a recent Tuesday at Re:Vision’s No-Cost Grocery, about 40 people waited for their numbers to be called, including Isabelle.

Isabelle, who didn’t feel comfortable providing her last name, arrived in Denver about six months ago, reuniting with her husband who left Venezuela last year.

Isabelle, a regular at Re:Vision's regular food pantry in their Morrison Road event space. April 9, 2024.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Isabelle said between her husband’s work as roofer and her odd jobs, money flow is inconsistent. So, they turn to food pantries every two weeks to supplement their needs.

It’s a story del Hierro said applies to all Denverites, the choice of whether to buy bread or pay a bill.

In Spanish, Isabelle said if the food pantry didn’t exist, her family would have to figure things out, like everyone has to do. But it is here and it helps.

“We depend on it because if we realize that we don’t have enough for the month to buy food, then we do need to come here,” del Hierro translated for Isabelle.

All the nonprofits said they accept donations. Monetary donations are best but food drop-offs are equally wanted. The city also has a list of places where folks can drop off clothing, hygiene items or things for babies such as diapers and formula.

“If the donations stop, we have to close and we don't want that. Now that we have a lot of families, we don't want to stop doing this,” Mendoza said.

Correction: A quote was corrected because of a misspelled word.

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