Teva Sienicki has two decades of experience leading nonprofit organizations. She has seen the impact of hard economic times before.
What the CEO of Denver hunger relief nonprofit Metro Caring is seeing this year amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the recession it has brought on is a new level of hard.
“The sheer volume and depth of impact on the community with people needing help with basic things like groceries, really I’ve never seen anything like that,” Sienicki said earlier this month.
Metro Caring is a Season to Share beneficiary and this year donations are as important as they have ever been.
The organization has been around for more than 45 years and provides tens of thousands of people every year with nutritious food as well as offers programming to help them healthier and more prosperous lives. Most of those it serves are working families that have struggled to keep up with the cost of living in Denver or older Americans relying on insufficient Social Security benefits, Sienicki said.
Since the novel coronavirus set in Colorado this spring, Metro Caring has seen its traffic nearly triple, according to the nonprofit. The organization was serving an average of 2,364 families a month between August 2019 and February. Between March and September, that average shot up to 7,128 families.
People of color, many working in heavily impacted industries like restaurants and retail, have been especially hard hit. Metro Caring’s client base was between 27% and 29% Black before the pandemic. Now it’s 39%, organization officials say.
The heightened need comes against a backdrop of skyrocketing food costs. The organization is spending in three weeks what it would usually spend in a year.
“The retailers have less waste and they have less to share with us, so we’re having to buy a lot more things,” Sienicki said.
The pandemic has also altered the way Metro Caring delivers its services. Its fresh foods market, the grocery-store style food pantry that provides clients with the opportunity to pick out their own food, has been shut down for COVID-19 safety. Food donations are now picked up via a drive-thru operation on weekdays. The organization has put together a variety of specialty food boxes to meet clients’ dietary and cultural needs and provide some choice.
The struggles do not mean Metro Caring is backing away from its two-pronged mission of meeting people’s immediate needs for nutritious food and building a movement to address the root causes of hunger. Danette Hollowell can attest to that.
The single mom, who gave birth to her third child, a son, in July, has been coming to Metro Caring for food and other resources when she has needed them for 10 years.
“Metro Caring was this one-stop-shop,” she said of the support it provides. “And not only that, it really made me feel like a person. My humanity was intact when I left.”
Recently, Metro Caring took on an expanded role in Hollowell’s life. Not only has it help feed her and her children and provide other essentials like toothpaste, but its kitchen has also become a key part of a new business she launched this year, a pop-up waffle stand she calls Sticky Drip Waffles.
Hollowell preps and stores food in Metro Caring’s commercial kitchen. She has also become a part-time staffer and volunteer with the organization’s food rescue program. She helps come up with recipes that turn items that might be wasted –like bunches of browned bananas or pounds of donated cactus– into ingredients Metro Caring clients can turn into easy-to-prepare dishes at home like banana bread or salsa.
“A lot of people have had a crazy year, myself included. Metro Caring really gave me the opportunity to bounce back,” Hollowell said. “They have trusted me with their kitchen, they have empowered me with their kitchen. And I am just really grateful for them.”
Right now, Metro Caring is facing a financial deficit, having canceled two in-person fundraisers this year. Sienicki knows from experience that individual donors are who get nonprofits through hard times like these and she is counting on the Denver community to step up. This challenging time could be an opportunity to reexamine our priorities as a society and take steps to try to shrink the widening inequality gap in our country, she said.
“We need to give until it hurts and we need to make sure we are doing everything we can to not just get back to normal but build back better,” she said. “This is a watershed moment that really highlights our connections to one another.”
Name of charity: Metro Caring
Address: 1100 E. 18th Ave., Denver
Year it started: 1974
Number of employees: 24 full-time; 5,000 volunteers
Annual budget: $10.3 million ($7.6 million in food distributed) in fiscal year 2019.
Percentage of funds that goes directly to client services: More than 90%
Number served last fiscal year: 28,000 people from 11,000 households made 30,000 visits to the food market, 350 unique individuals received utility assistance and 36,000 people were served through the ID voucher program.
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