When Sue Ellen Rodwick applied to be the director of Food Bank of the Rockies’ Western Slope Distribution Center, she knew it was the perfect position for her. Not only because of her professional experience, which spanned from food distribution to management positions at Goodwill of Colorado, but also because of her personal experience: When her son was a few months old, Sue Ellen went from being a co-parent to a single parent. In the process of raising a child alone, she eventually found herself in need of food assistance.
“My first encounter with a food pantry was with an organization that focuses on helping working families who don’t qualify for SNAP [the USDA Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program],” Sue Ellen recalled. “Even though I could have used the food pantry at my church months before, I never did because I thought it was for people who ‘really needed it.’ I also thought it was going to be stuff that wouldn’t fit with my specific dietary needs. But instead, I found all of this organic and healthy food there. That really opened my eyes to what a food pantry could be.”
Approaching her role from a place of genuine understanding allows Sue Ellen to connect with partners and clients while also being innovative in her branch’s approach to serving their community. Soon after beginning her job at the end of 2018, Sue Ellen began identifying areas of potential growth within the Western Slope. She grew her team, started targeted mobile pantries to serve older adults, increased frequency of distributions to partners, increased mobile pantries from 11 a month to 25, more than doubled their fleet of trucks, spearheaded the initiative to get a new distribution building, and found new ways to utilize the resources available to her team and community, including partnering with Colorado State University to grow culturally responsive produce to distribute via mobile pantries.
“I love being connected with the community,” said Sue Ellen, who also serves on the AARP Colorado Executive Council. “I get to be in a position where I’m the voice and face of the Food Bank here. It’s my job to find out and understand what each community needs from us.”
That mission became especially critical during the COVID-19 pandemic. To meet the growing rates of food insecurity in their communities, Food Bank of the Rockies Western Slope ramped up distribution to partners, most notably in the Aspen to Parachute region, which was extremely hard-hit by COVID-19. They also forged relationships in places the Food Bank had never before served, including several new partner agencies in Delta County. Each decision was made in an effort to figure out how to best serve each community.
“One of the biggest challenges our Hunger Relief Partners face is not having enough freezer or cooler space,” Sue Ellen explained. “They want fresh produce because that’s what clients want, but they don’t have anywhere to store it. So, we either need to help them by expanding their freezer and cooler space, or we can deliver more frequently. But we have to help them somehow.”
Another area Sue Ellen saw as a growth opportunity was reaching more older adults. “Mesa County’s population is growing to the point where soon 25% will be adults aged 60 and older,” she said. “Yet even with such a high rate of older adults, Western Slope has the lowest compliance for the Food Bank’s EverGreen Box™ program. I realized we needed to do a lot more work to reach that population.”
To achieve this, Sue Ellen and her team redesigned their distribution model for EverGreen Boxes™ (which are available to older adults aged 60+ who meet federal income-level requirements) to mirror that of metro Denver, implementing mass monthly distributions out of Palisade and Fruita. They now distribute food to almost 200 more individuals every month, with the numbers continuing to grow.
“In all we do, I encourage my team to be nimble. To try things. To innovate,” said Sue Ellen. “I have a great team that is excited about doing a better job of reaching people that need food. We want to work with the community. We tell partners that we aren’t going to swoop in and try to ‘save the day,’ rather that we’ll be there when they need us. We’re not going to overstep, but we’ll be there.”
Being there looks however it needs to look. Partnering with St. Mary’s Meals on Wheels Mesa County to share the Food Bank’s future Western Slope distribution center, inviting community partners to sign up clients for SNAP and WIC (USDA’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) benefits, bringing clean water to towns dealing with a water main break, encouraging people to sign up for free and reduced lunches at their child’s school: It’s all part of the job.
“The needs are not the same every week. We want and need to be aware of what’s happening in each community, and to be a resource,” Sue Ellen said. “I’m amazed at how my staff has stepped up and continues to overcome the challenges we are faced with. They are amazing. My staff and the people we serve are what keep me going.”
To support Sue Ellen and her team in the Western Slope, as well as Food Bank of the Rockies’ myriad efforts to end hunger, please consider donating today.