Need for food resources still elevated
Although the number of reported local COVID-19 cases is decreasing, the need for food resources for people across Routt County remains elevated.
Nonprofit and restaurant representatives say they are seeing continued increased volumes for food resources, ranging from food bank clients to people receiving free breakfast burritos.
Sue Fegelein, executive director of LiftUp of Routt County, said the nonprofit food banks in Steamboat Springs, Oak Creek and now a mobile operation in Hayden have not seen a decline in clients from the end of 2021 into this year. The food bank numbers increased the most in 2020 before declining some, but are not back to pre-pandemic volumes, Fegelein said. In one snapshot comparing year-over-year, LiftUp served 346 households in December 2019, 454 in December 2020 and 380 in December 2021.
Comparing food bank households served in January 2019 to January 2022, LiftUp showed a 39.5% increase. Last month, the food bank served 713 individuals and 371 households, Fegelein said.
The former community-initiated Steamboat Local Love challenge in early 2021 gathered more than $157,500 in gift cards for local restaurants that were distributed to LiftUp food bank clients. LiftUp also distributed 230 grocery gift cards through a grant from Safeway.
“The rising cost of groceries, along with the rising cost of living, is likely adding to the level of need that locals are facing,” Fegelein said. “We encourage our neighbors to help offset their expenses by shopping monthly in our food banks, or by visiting the Grab and Go section in the front of our food banks daily.”
Sharon Stone, owner of Sharon’s restaurant at Riverside Plaza, promotes free to-go breakfast burritos for people in need and continues to serve some 50 meals of pork green chili or non-meat burritos, home fries and coffee each week. Stone began the assistance in late November 2020, and she has seen the need come in waves often influenced by weather, such as feeding more ski area employees when the resort opened later or more snow removal workers during this drier winter.
Stone said her food assistance continues as a break-even effort due to many small donations from customers. She said the restaurant has also become somewhat of a hub for employee/employer informal networking for people connecting about work opportunities while waiting on food orders.
Mike Diemer, co-owner of Johnny B. Good’s Diner for 28 years in downtown Steamboat, said although requests for free meals have dropped significantly from a peak of more than 100 per week during the height of the pandemic, the restaurant still offers free meals by request, such as homemade chicken noodle soup and bread, grilled cheese or meatball sandwiches for people in need. During the peak of requests from November 2020 to January 2021, Diemer saw families where parents had lost jobs coming in for free meals two to three times a week.
Diemer also believes people are experiencing food insecurity in part due to increased grocery prices in the past six months. The restaurateur has watched his bulk order prices for eggs double and ground meat prices increase by 34%. He said no food prices have dropped within the past six months, including price increases in meat, dairy and specialty items such as onion rings, mozzarella sticks and chicken fingers.
Laurie Edwards, part-time operations manager at Heart of Steamboat United Methodist Church, said the volume at the church’s Open Table To-Go free Thursday night meals also increased during the pandemic. The weekly meal transformed from an in-person socializing events largely for church members to an even split between church-goers and community members in need.
“Currently we are doing around 175 meals via the drive-through Open Table To-Go, and that’s been fairly consistent since starting in the fall of 2020,” Edwards said.
Diemer said his restaurant meal assistance was extraordinarily uplifting for the owners due to generosity from community members.
“When we started doing it, we had no idea the generosity of the community that was going to step up and help us keep doing it,” Diemer said.
Stone said she will continue the free to-go breakfast for people in need from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. Monday to Friday while the need exists.
“You should never give up an opportunity to help people. I’ve been broke before, but I’ve never been hungry,” Stone said. “It’s touching and humbling to see how many hungry people there really are out there.”
To reach Suzie Romig, call 970-871-4205 or email sromig@SteamboatPilot.com.
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