Hungry for space
Despite what you've heard, Durango is still a real town with real problems
A local nonprofit whose mission is to help people is in need of some help itself.
Since 1977, the Durango Food Bank has helped La Plata County residents struggling with food insecurity, distributing to nearly 12,000 people every year through home deliveries, curbside pickup and an on-site self-select pantry.
But the nonprofit’s mission to provide enough food so no one in the community has to face food insecurity has expanded in recent years, especially due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Durango Food Bank has always struggled with limited space at its facility in Bodo Park, said Executive Director Sarah Smith. But once the pandemic thrust the food bank into a larger role, it became clear that location, which is about 2,000 square feet, was not enough.
However, with available space limited – and not cheap – the situation for the food bank is tricky and uncertain. Yet, Smith said the nonprofit is making moves to find a solution.
“Our space has been grossly inadequate for some time, and we’ve known we needed a bigger facility,” Smith said. “But the COVID situation really made it clear this is not working. We need a significant amount of square footage to meet our demand.”
Food to the people
The Durango Food Bank serves a niche of working families and seniors in La Plata County. Unlike Manna, which provides meals (among other services) to people experiencing homelessness, and federal assistance programs like SNAP, nearly all the food bank’s clients have jobs or are on Social Security. Yet, it’s still not enough as they struggle to pay for rent, bills and food. Or, Smith said some clients have simply fallen upon hard times, whether they just recently experienced a family emergency, are in debt or have an unexpected expense. For years, the Durango Food Bank has been a place they can come for a few months until they can get back on their feet.
“We don’t see clients over and over; we bridge that gap for them during a difficult time,” Smith said. “These people are not on corners begging; they’re not at the food stamp office. They’re working alongside us, socializing with us, but struggling behind the scenes.”
Many of the people who come to Durango Food Bank have steady jobs and make what should be a livable wage (which also makes them ineligible for food stamps). In fact, Smith said many of the food bank’s clients come from major employers in town. But the sheer cost of living in Durango, plus inflation and soaring housing prices, can make it difficult to get by.
“People are set up for failure, because the expense of living is so great, so even if they work all they can, they still struggle,” Smith said. “Our clients are truly our neighbors who are struggling and don’t necessarily want their struggles to be visible in the community.”
By the numbers
Although Durango has the beautiful backdrop of the San Juan Mountains and can feel like Disneyland for outdoor junkies, it is still a real town with real people facing real problems. And food insecurity is high atop the list.
According to San Juan Basin Public Health, not having enough food is a concern for 12% of residents in both Archuleta and La Plata counties. The health department, which runs the Women, Infants and Children program to help with food insecurity, saw its enrollment numbers double at the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“With many local residents experiencing job loss, having to care for out-of-school children at home, and facing other constraints posed by the pandemic, accessing enough healthy food has become more challenging,” SJBPH said at the time.
Durango Food Bank saw much of the same increased demand. In 2021, for instance, the food bank served 17,381 people, a 22% increase from 2020. About half were adults, 23% children and 29% seniors. By far, the majority of people served were in Durango, but the food bank also assisted people in parts of the county in Bayfield, Ignacio and Hesperus.
The Durango Food Bank last summer also converted part of its facility to function as a sort of grocery store, where clients can come in twice a week to pick up necessary items. “People love it,” Kirsten Chesney, development coordinator for the food bank, said.
In response to increasing demand during the pandemic, which also included providing assistance to outlier counties, the Durango Food Bank was able to secure an additional 3,000-square-foot facility to store more products and serve as a regional food distribution hub. But that agreement was only for the short term, and now, as the dust settles from the pandemic, Smith said the food bank is searching for a long-term solution to its facility needs.
“We really need something long term to assist us and make sure our clients are being taken care of and we have adequate supplies and resources,” she said. “We don’t just want food on our shelves. We need a backstock to prepare for emergencies.”
The Durango Food Bank is primarily funded – about 90% – by individual donors and community support. The problem is, Smith said, the nonprofit doesn’t have nearly enough funds to be competitive in the Durango real estate market, and to appeal to bigger funders and organizations for help, a project needs to actually be in the works.
“We don’t have cash reserves for the purchase of a multi-million dollar property,” Smith said. “And we need to have something in the works for funders to come in. So we’re in a tricky place.”
The search continues
Ideally, the Durango Food Bank needs a 6,000-10,000-square-foot warehouse-type facility, which, of course, is not an easy find in Durango. “Our hands are tied because of the logistics of finding the space and the extreme cost out there,” Smith said. “But the need is here and now.”
The food bank hopes to work with La Plata County on a county-owned facility, the old Pepsi distribution center in Bodo, which is equipped with loading docks and semi-truck access. But County Spokesman Ted Holteen said that property is reserved for future expansion of the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office.
Commissioner Matt Salka, however, said the county is aware of the food bank’s predicament.
“We do have concerns, because the Durango Food Bank is an important need and asset for our community,” Salka said. “So it’s definitely on our radar; this is not on the backburner.”
In the meantime, the search continues, but the Durango Food Bank is optimistic. Smith said everyone in the community understands how important it is to help people experiencing food insecurity. But one difficulty is getting the message out there that food security can affect anyone, at any time.
“Our clients are struggling but don’t want their names or faces out in the public,” she said. “But these are people we work with, go to church with, see around town, but behind the scenes, they are in need of our help.”