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COVID-19 Pandemic: One Year Later – Q&A With Our CEO, Erin Pulling

a food bank volunteer checking vehicles in

About this time a year ago, President & CEO of Food Bank of the Rockies, Erin Pulling, was walking through the 45th Avenue distribution center and “it was like crickets.” Normally about 100 volunteers would be bustling about, but there was almost nobody around. The shutdown was beginning to take hold, and people had to cancel their plans and stay home, a distressing reality for an organization that relies so heavily on the commitment of volunteers. In a typical year, 18,000 volunteers support the mission of Food Bank of the Rockies. Erin began to realize that everything was about to change. The magnitude of this hunger crisis has been unlike anything Food Bank of the Rockies has experienced in its 42-year history.

What has changed since the pandemic hit last March?

Virtually nothing has stayed the same. Nearly every single aspect of how we do what we do has changed. We had to change how food comes into our distribution centers, our process of preparing food for distribution, and our process of distributing food. We had to reinvent our operations amidst an exacerbated need while keeping our staff and volunteers safe.

How quickly did you have to adapt?

Immediately. People were losing their jobs, and we knew we were going to have more members of our community depending on us than ever before. We asked ourselves, “How are we going to respond in this moment of need?” and decided that it was our organizational moral imperative to do everything in our power to distribute as much food as humanly possible. We knew we wouldn’t be able to increase donated food by millions of pounds so we immediately purchased more than we’d ever purchased before—costing nearly a million dollars that first month—on a wing and a prayer that the community would step up alongside us. And then we threw our budget, operational systems, and previous priorities out the window along with our aversions to risk.

Tell us more about the community members you are serving.

Roughly 40 percent of the people we’ve served over the past year have never previously needed food assistance in their entire lives. We’re seeing people who had stable jobs suddenly put in positions of choosing between paying rent and feeding their families. Many of our community members didn’t know where to turn for their next meal. We’re here to let people know they can receive nourishing food with dignity from Food Bank of the Rockies and our fantastic network of 800+ Hunger Relief Partners.

What were some of the biggest obstacles as your operations were turned upside down?

Our biggest obstacle was fear. Essentially overnight, we increased our budget by 50 percent as we began ordering truckloads of food and renting refrigerated trailers. We also added a night shift and an additional distribution center. We asked ourselves, “Are we being irresponsible? Will the community step up to support us unlike ever before during this time of economic uncertainty?”

Beyond our operational and financial concerns, there were supply chain challenges. In the first months of COVID, we’d order a truckload of food, and it would be delayed by four weeks or outright cancelled. The price we were paying for a pound of food also increased.

a mobile food pantry
Photo courtesy of the Denver Broncos.

And, frankly, more so than any other concern, we feared for the health and safety of our team—our staff and volunteers—and the people we’re serving. We worried about how we could distribute food safely and whether drive-through, contactless mobile pantries would work. Amazingly, they did, and now we’re hosting more than 70 mobile pantries each month. But during the first few weeks, the magnitude of our responsibility to nourish our community while keeping everyone safe kept me up at night. Our work was the epitome of flying a rocket ship while we were building it.

How did you overcome the fear?

Our community. We saw an outpouring of support from donors and volunteers, reassuring us that we were doing the right thing. We had thrown out the notion of calculated and careful growth along with our budget and 2020 plans. And we looked up to notice that you—our volunteers and donors—were right here with us.

What are you most grateful for?

First and foremost, Food Bank of the Rockies’ team. We discovered we are capable of so much more than we ever imagined. This pandemic has taught our team how to come together in a crisis. We don’t have a workforce that can work from the safety of their homes, and yet, when you walk through our distribution centers, people’s moods are high, smiles abound, and people are happy to be here. And our volunteers are grateful to have an opportunity to make a difference while having their safety prioritized. I am so incredibly thankful to our staff and volunteer teams for making this possible, even amidst the challenges. And our donors have been with us in lockstep. By the end of this fiscal year in June, we will have accomplished roughly eight years’ worth of growth in two years.

What do you see ahead for Food Bank of the Rockies when you’re not in full pandemic mode?

volunteers and staff working in the food bank's distribution center

We don’t foresee a “going back to normal.” Food insecurity is going to rebound slowly; we’ve stopped trying to estimate a timeframe. However, there are things that we will carry with us in our future—listening and responding to community needs and thinking outside the business model of how we’ve always operated. Some of the first calls we received during COVID presented new needs necessitating nontraditional ways of serving people, such as how to provide nourishment to kids no longer at school. We were reinventing and reconsidering everything. We answered every new, unexpected need with how rather than if. We’ve become nimble, flexible, and innovative—organizational traits that will serve us in our future.

How can people support Food Bank of the Rockies?

Two things. Refer people to us if they know someone facing food insecurity. And also, we’re depending on volunteers and donors. We’re here for the long haul, for as long as it takes, and we’re going to continue stepping up. We’re going to continue pushing the bounds of what we thought was possible, and we’re going to depend on our community—our donors and volunteers—to be here alongside us. For that—for you—we are tremendously grateful.

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