Volunteers at the E.A.S.T. Mobile Food Bank set up shop in the parking lot of the former East 8th Street Safeway. (Courtesy of Barbara Torrez)

COVID-19 pandemic intensifies Pueblo food insecurity

Pueblo’s charity food banks may be limited to drive-through service during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the lines are as long as ever.

“Pueblo County has already experienced food insecurity with a couple of our major towns and neighborhoods being classified as food deserts, which means there is no easy access to a grocery store serving healthy, nutritious foods.” said Monique Marez, coordinator of the Pueblo Food Project. “In light of COVID-19, those scarcity challenges have only increased.”

For families struggling economically during the pandemic, nutritious meals are often cut from the budget out of necessity, Marez said. As the demand increases, families may also struggle to find certain foods on grocery store shelves. As a result, charity food banks providing free produce, fruits, commodities and other resources are seeing and increase in visitors.

“The first thing we have done and are doing… is to create a Local Food Resource Guide which essentially outlines all of the charitable, giving food opportunities available for Pueblo families,” Marez said. “Where are the mobile pantries? What are the hours? Who qualifies? Same with school meals.”

Volunteers at the Bessemer Association for Neighborhood Development’s Mobile Food Pantry, one of several charity food banks listed in the Local Food Resource Guide, can attest to the growing number of Puebloans seeking charity food services.

In collaboration with Neighborworks Southern Colorado, B.A.N.D. served meals to 90 individuals during its December 2019 food pantry. Five months later, the number of individuals served increased to 590, according to Renee Taylor, community and resource development coordinator for NeighborWorks Southern Colorado.

The B.A.N.D. Mobile Food Pantry receives food from the Care and Share Food Bank in Southern Colorado and is held on the second Friday of every month at the Steelworks Center of the West in Bessemer.

“Anybody in Pueblo is more than welcome to come to our food bank, but mostly it is the Bessemer, Eilers, Grove area primarily,” Taylor said. “But if you live on the East Side, the West Side, or if you live up north… If you need food, you can come.”

In addition to operating as a drive-through only service, all volunteers with the B.A.N.D. Mobile Food Pantry are required to wear a mask and gloves during the COVID-19 pandemic. Contact between volunteers from different households is limited as much as possible, Taylor said.

East of Fountain Creek and North of the Arkansas River, the Eastside Action Support Team is taking similar precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The E.A.S.T. Mobile Food Bank has operated on the first and third Fridays of the month since September 2018 and also receives food donated from Care and Share.

Located near the site of the former East Eighth Street Safeway, the E.A.S.T. Mobile Food Bank serves an Eastside Pueblo Community that has been without a nearby grocery store since the Safeway’s closing in 2016. Drive-through only food banks may leave room for social distancing, E.A.S.T. President Barbara Torrez said they can also be inconvenient for some.

“Now that we have gone to the drive-through only, we notice that we did increase our people, but the people that kind of need it the most are the walk-up ones,” Torrez said. “They don’t have a vehicle, they are sitting in their houses, they live right in the neighborhood so they usually just walked over… but we don’t get those guys anymore.”

Torrez said E.A.S.T. is in the process of getting a delivery truck to service Eastside residents without vehicles.

“I am hoping to do every second and fourth Friday for home delivery to people who can’t get out… ” Torrez said. “That’s one of my goals, is to take care of the ones that can’t get out, don’t have a car and can’t get to the distribution but also need food.”