Denver Group advocates are banding collectively to make sure youngsters do not go hungry through the pandemic

First, the pandemic disrupted her daughters’ education. School went online for Maru Gutierrez ‘fourth grader and high school freshman soon after COVID hit Denver in March.

For the next month, the pandemic hit her family’s finances. Gutierrez’s employer, a company that offers adult Bible lessons, was cut due to the economic impact of COVID and lost her job in the Spanish content department.

Then the pandemic hit her family’s health. Her husband, an engineer at a construction company, came down with COVID in mid-November. Gutierrez and her two daughters were soon sick too. It took them weeks to recover from the fever and body aches.

Community activists looking for ways to support families in Denver who have suffered on many levels from the pandemic have identified food as “the most relevant and urgent problem,” said Dom Barrera, chief of staff at the grocery company Bondadosa.

Kevin J. Beaty / Denverite

Bondadosa brought his logistics expertise to a group that includes Faithbridge, Transform Education Now, Young Emerging Americans Social and Political Activism, and Denver Food Rescue. Collectively known as the Colorado Food Cluster, they have been receiving boxes of free family meals since late October. The project began with deliveries to families of 400 students, including Gutierrez’s daughters, attending schools in Denver that are part of the national KIPP charter. As of that week, the project had grown to include nearly all 2,600 KIPP students in Denver, as well as approximately 5,000 students attending STRIVE and DSST schools, Barrera said. He said the goal is to reach 15,000 Denver students by the end of the year.

Winna Maclaren, a spokeswoman for Denver Public Schools, said the district, which has more than 93,000 students, is in the early stages of coordination with the Colorado Food Cluster and is continuing its own efforts to ensure students don’t go hungry.

Theresa Hafner, who heads DPS nutrition services, said the district opened school kitchens when some students were learning face-to-face again in the fall. The district has continued a program that began when schools closed due to the pandemic that allowed families to collect take-away meals in some roadside locations, Hafner said.

“We provide meals for distance learning centers and day care centers,” added Hafner. “We also work with our transportation department to deliver meals on weekdays to areas where students live. Our local nonprofit partner, Food for Thought, offers weekend meals at our roadside locations and many schools that study in person. “

None of the KIPP schools in Denver are among the 32 DPS roadside locations. Tomi Amos, executive director of KIPP Colorado Schools, said it was “monumental” that the Colorado Food Cluster is delivering groceries to the doors of their schools’ families.

KIPP parents Gutierrez said the weekly deliveries are especially helpful if their family is sick with COVID and nobody can get out, neither to the grocery store nor to a pick-up point for school meals.

But “even if you don’t have COVID, you save money,” Gutierrez said. And “you have more time to spend with your children.”

Each week, for every week in a household, the Colorado Food Cluster provides enough cooked dinners and snacks for every student in a household. The food is prepared by Revolution Foods of California, which offers meals for such programs in the United States. Food deliveries are funded by donors and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s child and adult care program. Barrera said the cost of providing and delivering meals over the summer will be $ 17 million.

Fernando Hermosillo (left) and Felipe Lopez load Bondadosa grocery boxes into a van.  December 10, 2020.

Kevin J. Beaty / Denverite

The Colorado Food Cluster recruits delivery drivers from the families it looks after and equips them with a phone app that tells them where to go and what to hand in at each house.

“Our goal is to provide jobs in these families as well as meals,” said Barrera. He said Bondadosa hopes to build employment skills that families can continue to use after the pandemic, and is working with the Denver Community College to find ways to ensure people get testimonials of on-the-job learning at the company.

Bondadosa was founded by Ricardo Rocha as a social enterprise in 2017, which means most of its profits will be reinvested to meet its goals of leveraging technology that will help Colorado food makers, growers, and small businesses bring fresh, local groceries to customers deliver. Bondadosa also incubates startups in agriculture and sustainable transportation.

Since the pandemic, Bondadosa has participated in the Denver Metro Emergency Food Network, a coalition of volunteers, community groups, and donors that delivered more than 300,000 free meals to Denver households whose food security has been weakened by COVID in the first five months of the pandemic -19 and the impact of the pandemic on the economy. Hispanics and other minorities have been disproportionately injured by both the disease and its impact on jobs.

Barrera said the Colorado Food Cluster plans to partner with traditional DPS schools as well as the district’s charters such as KIPP. Barrera said the project started with KIPP because its members viewed KIPP schools as a service provider for some of the most needy families. Most KIPP students are high school or color students and most receive free or discounted school meals.

Amos, KIPP’s chief executive officer, said many of the families their schools serve are struggling to stay in.

“Job security remains an issue that has exacerbated food insecurity,” Amos said, adding that the delivery driver jobs offered by the Colorado Food Cluster “were another opportunity to think about it more holistically.”

Amos said another bonus is that Revolution Foods, which prepares the meals supplied by the Colorado Food Cluster, includes menu items such as students who are known and welcome in the homes of KIPP families. English and Spanish are most commonly spoken by KIPP families. Amos acknowledged that cultural sensitivity was a challenge in a community where families also speak Amharic, Arabic, Burmese, Nepalese, Russian, Somali, Swahili and Vietnamese.

Gutierrez, who comes from Mexico, likes to cook. She and her husband, who is from Bolivia, shared some of their favorite recipes in a cooking demonstration at their daughters’ school when the class was personal.

Gutierrez said the Colorado Food Cluster’s meals were healthy and delicious. Her teenage girl, starting to worry about her figure, sometimes deconstructs supplies from the Colorado Food Cluster to make her own salads or soups.

Gutierrez said a benefit of losing her job is that she now has more time to oversee her daughters’ online learning, including troubleshooting if they are having trouble connecting to the internet. She also has chores to do. But at least she doesn’t have to plan and prepare daily dinners for her daughters.

“It was really hard,” she said. “Right now I feel like I have to be a teacher, I have to be a psychologist.”

She said she tries to help her daughters who are not seeing her friends focus on the positives. She tells them: “We are in different times right now. But at least we have more time to spend together. It’s another way of seeing this difficult time. “

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