Nearly half of clients surveyed are choosing between paying bills and buying food, while more than a third of them say they run out of food in a month despite utilizing the food bank.
Around 46 million turkeys will be eaten as the nation celebrates Thanksgiving, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Per the National Turkey Federation, about 88% of Americans will eat turkey as the feature dish of their meal.
Thanksgiving Day is undoubtedly dominated by food — what you’re serving, who’s bringing what, and questions like 'Why are canned cranberries even a thing?'
But for some residents in the Yampa Valley, what food they will eat this month — and whether they will be able to afford enough of it — is a question that dominates their daily lives.
“If people could just know the kinds of choices local families are making,” said Sue Fegelein, executive director of LiftUp Routt County.
LiftUp recently completed a survey of people who are using the nonprofit’s food bank, revealing how crucial access to the food bank is to their ability to eat. While not completely comprehensive, the survey results have forced LiftUp to contemplate how they can do more to help struggling families in the valley as food donations are down and their busiest season is just getting started.
Through October, more than 2,600 unique Yampa Valley residents have utilized LiftUp’s Food Bank — a staggering 115% increase over the same period in 2022. That means that one out of every 10 residents in Routt County has shopped at LiftUp’s food bank so far this year.
More than 70% of respondents to the survey said they rely on the food bank for 50% or more of their food in a given month. About 53% of survey respondents said they were concerned about running out of food before the end of the month, while 36% of respondents said they did run out of food before they were eligible to purchase more.
Perhaps most striking, 48% of survey respondents said they are often needing to choose between paying bills and putting food on the table.
“We’ve been having lines out the door,” Fegelein said. “By the end of the day, shelves are wiped out again and we have to send people to the store. It’s just keeping up at this point.”
Fegelein credits the increase in need to the increase in cost of food. This is pushing more and more families (with higher and higher incomes) to look to LiftUp’s food bank for help.
“Our clients are at 300% or lower of the poverty level, which is not the poverty level,” Fegelein said. “Since inflation has been going up, the cost of food has been going up. It’s been pushing all kinds of people through the doors who just can’t afford food right now.”
(For example, a family of four making a monthly income of $7,500 or less qualifies to shop at the food bank.)
At the same time, food donations are down 16% when compared to last year, and 35% when compared to 2021 — a problem that has hampered LiftUp all year.
In total, LiftUp has distributed nearly 260,000 pounds of food so far this year, an increase of 18% when compared to the same period last year. It has also provided more than 3,700 USDA food boxes, which is a 57% increase over last year and more
The need isn’t just for food. Use of LiftUp’s emergency financial support is up 71% when compared to last year, with housing being the largest need for these funds. While summer is typically LiftUp’s slow season, that hasn’t been the case this year and the winter months are usually the busiest of the year.
“Between food purchases and emergency financial support, we are just over $94,000 over budget, as we work to meet the needs presented by our neighbors,” Fegelein said.
LiftUp has responded by opening the food bank on the first Saturday every month, rather than just on weekdays. Starting in December, the food bank will also be open the third Saturday of every month, in an effort to reach more folks whose schedules limit their ability to shop on weekdays.
They have also increased the points system used at the food bank. Before shoppers were allowed an allotment of 20 points per family member, with certain food items being worth different amounts of points. That has now been increased to 25 points per family member.
LiftUp has also started allowing folks to come into the food bank for a second time in a month to shop for fresh produce in an effort to provide healthier food options.
“We’re trying collectively in this community to reduce food insecurity,” Fegelein said. “When we got out client survey results, were talking about what we can do to reduce food insecurity for our clients because clearly they’re still experiencing it despite coming here.”
How can you help?
Fegelein said it is really all about keeping food on the shelf.
Because most of LiftUp’s food is purchased at a discount from Food Bank of the Rockies, monetary donations are able to stretch further and are always welcome, Fegelein said. If contributing online, donors can note whether they want it to go toward all of LiftUp’s support operations or be designated for buying food specifically.
“We get a lot more (donations) during the holiday season, which is excellent because it is our busiest season,” Fegelein said. “We also need them year-round, because if next year is going to be anything like this year, it’s just not going to slow down.”
Yampa Valley Gives Day is Dec. 5, and donations made between now and then can help LiftUp qualify for extra incentives to support their mission.
Additionally, Jon Wade and The Steamboat Group are matching up to $25,000 in donations to go toward purchasing fresh produce for clients to access in the food bank.
Fegelein also encourages anyone to hold their own food drive, with certain items like hearty soups, vegetable oil and canned proteins like tuna being specifically in need.
“We’ve got some book clubs doing food drives, neighborhoods doing food drives — We will take a food drive from anybody,” Fegelein said, adding that local faith communities and Rotary groups are helping as well. “They can always call the food bank and say, ‘Hey, what are your biggest needs right now?’”
Top Photo Caption: LiftUp Routt County has seen a 115% increase in the number of Yampa Valley residents using its food bank. (LiftUp/Courtesy)