Surging food prices and utility costs are fueling the need locally, and are likely leading fewer people to donate.
When running the numbers for a grant earlier this month, LiftUp Routt County Executive Director Sue Fegelein thought there must be some mistake.
“I kept looking at January through March and I’m like, holy smokes,” Fegelein said. “If I look at last year we had served six people by March for utility assistance. This year, it’s 47”
When looking at LiftUp’s entire emergency financial assistance program, the number of clients served has jumped 326%, Fegelein said. Things are up at the food bank too, with a 36% increase in people needing that kind of help. The number of kids served through the organization's Rocket Pack healthy snacks and summer lunches program is up 22% as well. There were six people that used the food bank on Wednesday alone.
All this comes as donations to LiftUp are down. For example, food donations are down 18% compared to last year — all while those donations aren’t going as far with food prices surging. Fegelein says she doesn’t think people in Routt County understand how much some of their neighbors are struggling.
“People might not realize the extent of the need in the community right now that we’re seeing every day,” she said. “It’s significant and surprising.”
At the onset of the pandemic in 2020, the need for these types of assistance dramatically increased locally as many people were out of work amid closed restaurants and shuttered storefronts. At the time, service providers wondered whether the need would subside or if COVID-19 had created a new normal. It seems more likely now it could be the latter.
Mud seasons often are the busiest time of year for providers like LiftUp, as many people who work multiple jobs to survive in communities like Steamboat see their hours in service industries reduced after the tourists take a break from visiting Ski Town U.S.A. until things dry out. Fegelein anticipates the need they are seeing now won’t keep up this pace all year. Still, she expects it to “pick way back up” when the summer winds down.
Fegelein credits the additional need to a steep increase in utilities and food locally. Those increases can be seen in Steamboat Springs’ sales tax reports. Sales taxes collected from utilities are up nearly 33%, according to city data. Sales taxes from grocery stores and other food sellers are up more than 10%. Housing costs in the Yampa Valley don’t help either.
“The rents around town are just going nuts,” she said. “That really affects people and it’s harder for them to get back on track.”
Food prices are not just impacting people locally either. Fegelein said Food Bank of the Rockies, which is where they get much of the food for the local food pantry, is experiencing these costs too. That has trickle-down impacts. — as the larger food bank sees higher food costs, it costs more for LiftUp to secure that food. Fegelein said they are already overbudget purchasing food so far this year.
Food Bank of the Rockies is also seeing fewer donations, which means they are donating less food directly to LiftUp. This is due to both grocery stores giving less because they have less extra food available and the public giving less because they are paying more for their own food.
“It’s harder for them to afford food for themselves, so they’re not donating as much,” Fegelein said.
Fegelein said the Yampa Valley community has always stepped up to help them cover these additional costs, but often that additional giving doesn’t come until the end of the year. She suggested a number of ways people can help, from donating to LiftUp, holding a food drive at their place of work or coming to volunteer.
Direct donations can often go further, as Food Bank of the Rockies sells them food at a lower cost than what can be purchased at stores in Routt County.
Also, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday at City Market in Steamboat, LiftUp is holding a ProDo Food Drive, where volunteers will distribute lists of some of the most needed items to shoppers, who can pick them up and donate them when they finish their shopping. Financial donations can be made there as well.
Storm Peak Brewing Company is also holding its Peak-to-Peak event on May 27, where beer lovers travel from one of the brewery’s locations to another without driving. Proceeds from the event benefit LiftUp.
If donating financially or buying food isn’t an option, Fegelein said simply shopping in the thrift store is another way to help and — “Because it’s Steamboat” — there are often some pretty nice items. The thrift store is now open until 6 p.m. from Tuesday through Friday.
LiftUp also has a hope for the future scholarship program, which can be applied for until May 15, and is always looking for donations. The purpose of the scholarship is to help people get back to a path of self-sufficiency by returning to school or going to a trade school. Volunteering is always an option to support LiftUp as well.
“We’re fulfilling out mission,” Fegelein said. “We just might need a little extra help to make it happen.”