After surveying more than 100 pantry customers and compiling data on hunger, health, housing, and work, student researchers at the University of Colorado, Denver, were impressed with the things that are difficult to quantify.
Evyn Taylor, a graduate student in sociology, noted that the people who regularly picked up groceries in downtown Denver at La Alma-Lincoln Park had formed a supportive community.
“People know each other’s names and hang around asking about each other’s children,” she said.
Fellow student Danielle Maestas interviewed elderly people for whom lunch at the community center of the community may be their only daily meal, and not necessarily because they could no longer afford it.
“Some of my seniors lost their spouses and didn’t want to eat alone,” said Maestas at home, who has occasionally returned to the parish to prepare for senior lunches since completing the research this spring.
Michael Bruno, who runs the pantry, said he would make good use of the information Taylor, Maestas, and eight other students – half alumni, half undergraduate – compiled and analyzed in sociologist Adam Lippert’s Health Disparities class. And Bruno said the benefits were mutual and opened the students’ eyes to what was going on in the ward and the different ways we can help.
The final report was presented to Bruno and Downtown Executive Director Larry Martinez earlier this month in a professional presentation that was a first for the students.
“My students really ran with it,” said Lippert.
Among other things, they found that 60 percent of respondents used the pantry as often as allowed, which is the case twice a month. That showed the pantry, which operates like a free grocery store and is open three mornings a week, was meeting a need, Lippert said.
“If there’s reason to be optimistic, it’s that organizations like the Denver Community are really doing their job,” Lippert said. “I’ve seen how many people get through … It’s pretty remarkable. “
Lippert is an expert on health, demographics, and the type of analysis he taught his students as part of the parish project. His own research includes a recent study with a Penn State colleague on how parents in insecure families protect their children from starvation.
Across the country, 12 percent of households do not have reliable enough access to food. In Denver it’s about 16 percent. The numbers are high, especially for an advanced economy, Lippert said.
The student researchers found that customers from the municipality’s pantry are also struggling with housing insecurity. Only about 20 percent could count on living space and 10 to 20 percent were homeless. The rest had stable housing, thanks in part to government subsidies.
Six in ten of the pantry’s customers said their households ran out of groceries and ran out of money to buy more in the previous month. One in four said they spent a day without eating.
Taylor, a student at CU Denver, said that in more than one of the interviews the students conducted during a week in the ward in mid-April, the same person said he or she was employed but still did not have enough to eat.
“People assume that when you have a job you can deliver what you need. Which is not the case, ”said Taylor.
Taylor undertook to raise about $ 500 – including using her mother’s business contacts – so she and her colleagues could offer $ 5 grocery gift cards to pantry customers they surveyed. Taylor said she doesn’t want to take the time from people who are struggling and benefit from the information they shared without giving anything back.
Martinez, the community’s executive director, said the working poor the students encountered exemplified the growing gap between income and the cost of living, and between the experiences of high and low paid workers.
Evidence of economic growth “only measures how well wealthy people are doing,” Martinez said.
“It does not cover people who live on social benefits.”
According to Lippert, 60 percent of respondents received benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as grocery brands. He said many of the 40 percent who received no federal food benefit were eligible.
“There are clearly some unmet needs,” said Lippert.
Martinez and Bruno said one of the ways they would use the report written by Lippert and his students is evidence in discussions with policy makers about the importance of federal food aid and the work of pantries and food banks.
“Unfortunately, the demand is only increasing,” said Bruno.
Last year the average number of visitors increased from around 30 people at the beginning of the morning and around 60 at the end to 40 to 45 at the beginning and from 65 to 70 at the end.
Martinez said, “There’s no way the nonprofit food system can do this on its own.”
Martinez added that he was hiring lawmakers from a position that “it is the government’s responsibility to keep people from starving”.
With this report from CU Denver, the community can show that “we’re not just trying to be a band aid to the problem,” said Bruno. “We try to innovate and educate people.”
In addition to a survey of 104 pantry customers, CU Denver student Maestas conducted in-depth interviews with seven people participating in a pilot that began in January to promote healthier eating habits among seniors. She looked at the community’s Veggie Rx, which was modeled on similar programs that have been successful elsewhere in the country. Veggie Rx offers nutrition classes, recipes for participants, and even a guided tour of a supermarket. Maestas observed these activities in addition to talking to the participants. She learned that Veggie Rx seniors reported avoiding the cakes and cookies offered in the pantry and instead stocking up on fruits and vegetables.
The seniors also told Maestas that they believed more people would be attending Veggie Rx if they had a way to get to the community center where the classes are held and the pantry is located. Bruno said that because the student’s report highlighted transportation issues, he was considering using a van to pick up people on pantry days.
Taylor and Maestas’ fundraiser for a side study impressed their professor. Lippert said he was thinking to himself, “Wow, do you want to do extra work?” I was pretty excited. “
Bruno looks forward to working more with students at CU Denver. Perhaps the next study can look further into the effects of SNAP.
Denver Inner City Parish was founded in 1960 to serve what was then South Lincoln Homes, a housing project that the Denver Housing Authority later demolished and replaced with a mixed-income development in the Mariposa District. The founders of the congregation wanted to fill a void left by the churches, which were the safety net of the neighborhood and who moved with their congregations to the suburbs. Despite its name and origin, the community has no religious affiliation.
Martinez has been with the community for 25 years, starting out as a young volunteer sorting food. He saw the operation change from a place where donations were packed in boxes to be distributed to recipients.
“I would watch people, if they left our building and went straight to the trash can, they would throw away what they didn’t want,” he said.
That changed in the mid-2000s when many pantries began to function more like grocery stores – albeit with no cashiers – to give their customers more choice. Martinez’s community conducted its first own customer survey in 2009. The tradition of these surveys was one of the reasons Martinez was receptive when Lippert approached him with the idea of his class conducting a study.
“It’s important that we get feedback (to know) what we can do better,” said Martinez.
Over the years, customers have made it clear that they want fresh produce. This has helped transform the way community partners like the Food Bank of the Rockies work, Martinez said. His community also receives supplies from the nonprofit food rescue organization We Don’t Waste, as well as from churches and other groups that run food campaigns on their behalf. The pantry staff also conduct their own food rescues and collect supplies that Target, Walmart and Loaf ‘N Jug may otherwise throw away.
On Wednesday, customers in the pantry found fresh peppers, asparagus, onions, apples, citrus fruits and kale, as well as canned soups and vegetables, dairy products, bread, pastries and meat.
“Food has always been at the center of our mission,” said Martinez.
Community visitors can also get help with housing and job hunting.
“So often there isn’t just one problem,” said Bruno. “Eating is only one solution. There are many other things that must be done to lift people out of poverty. “