It’s a drive-thru, but it doesn’t serve fast-food. It’s a pop-up pantry, but up to three-quarters of stock is fresh produce and perishable staples such as eggs, bread, meat, and dairy. Most important of all: The Aspen Mobile Pantry, held from noon to 2 p.m. every Wednesday in the Aspen Golf Course parking lot, is open to anyone who might be feeling the financial strain of the pandemic. Residents who may be scared to admit that they’re food insecure, especially.
“This stigma people feel about going to a mobile distribution or a food pantry (is) something we’re trying to break,” says Samuel Landercasper, economic assistance manager for the Pitkin County Department of Human Services. “In Pitkin County, 60% or more of us live below the self-sufficiency standard because of the high cost of living. When people are below, one of the first things to go is healthy food. The next is enough food. If you have to choose between paying rent or buying food, most people will make sure their rent’s paid.”
Landercasper, along with Katherine Sand, executive director of Aspen Family Connections (AFC) and lead organizer of the mobile pantry, anticipates an uptick in coming weeks as hundreds of locals may find themselves without work following last Sunday’s public health ban on indoor restaurant dining. However, they agree: There is enough food to go around. Come and get it.
The Aspen Mobile Pantry launched in March, and has been held at a few different locations. Currently it distributes food to an estimated 2,000 households per month here and at Crown Mountain Park in El Jebel (every Tuesday), representing a combined effort between the Food Bank of the Rockies and a locally organized “food distribution group” comprised of AFC, Aspen Skiing Co., Lift-Up, and the Aspen Community Foundation. Food Bank of the Rockies works with federal and state governments to secure funding to provide much of the food from grocery rescue, bulk purchases, and donations.
“In the last five years, we have grown our sourcing and distribution of fresh produce and meat at a rate that is triple that of all other food sources combined,” notes Sue Ellen Rodwick, FBR’s Western Slope director. Additionally, a “culturally-responsive food initiative” based on customer feedback has helped to draw items such as dried beans, tortillas, and masa flour.
“We want it to feel like a shopping experience for folks,” says Landercasper, who cites a recent $100,000 state grant to supply fresh meat and produce from area farms and producers from Aspen to Parachute during the growing season. The group purchased a refrigerated van to assist with transport across the valley, too. Meanwhile, the brick-and-mortar Lift-Up pantry on North Mill Street, he says, serves around 66 individuals per week through appointments—and there’s room for more. The team also distributes some 80 meals to senior citizens four days per week, plus lunch regularly at high schools in the Roaring Fork district.
“With demand increasing and more awareness, people have been stepping up and donating,” Landercasper says. “That leads to better food.” (See sidebar for info regarding donations and volunteering.)
On a recent Wednesday, the sky is overcast but the mood is sunny in the parking lot of the Aspen Golf Course. Traffic cones mark a path for drivers, culminating at giant pallets of green cabbages and red beets surrounded by cardboard boxes packed with canned and dry staples: peaches in syrup, beef ravioli, rice, lentils, split peas, pistachios, dried fruit, crackers, and orange juice. Egg cartons go on top.
About a dozen volunteers, including AFC and Aspen Skiing Co. staff, are bundled up in layers, hats, gloves, and orange safety vests. “It’s really been a community push,” says Erin Kinney, an AFC case manager onsite. “Thanksgiving turkeys, Christmas hams, [one week] the Elks [Lodge] made soup.” When the pantry was stationed at the Aspen Chapel during the holidays, City of Aspen Police Department pitched in with traffic control.
Now a man in a truck pulling a trailer topped with a tractor rolls up. Volunteers check him in, then begin loading his bed with boxes of food. Everyone is wearing masks, of course, but the smiles beneath them are apparent.
“We don’t need an ID, just a name, number in the household, address, and phone number,” Kinney explains, as this data is used by Food Bank of the Rockies to secure grant funding and adjust distribution as needed. Yet while anonymity is standard practice, connections ensue. “It’s been a cool, get-to-know-your-neighbor experience” in the past 10 months, Kinney continues. “Every one of us, our lives have been enhanced.”
Katherine Sand echoes this gratitude.
“I feel quite profoundly: during the first lockdown, there was a great deal of fear and stress,” she says. “We were lucky that because of our mobile distribution, we got to see the community every week. It helped us gauge the community mood, and ask how people were doing: Did you get the job you were after? Do you need some diapers for your baby? We give out a lot of diapers, by the way.”
Sand calls food “a conduit for information” that also offers an opportunity to dispense literature on mental health resources, the 2020 census, RESPONSE relief for domestic violence. At a separate check-in point, a bilingual volunteer welcomes Spanish-speakers, since language is a known barrier to participation. Similarly, the group handles deliveries to families unable to visit the pantry, including those who are housebound due to illness or quarantine.
“It’s not charity!” Sand maintains, but a path to greater economic freedom. “Anybody, anybody, anybody can come! These are our friends, neighbors, work colleagues. [Aspen] is a community that finds it quite difficult to ask for help. People here are proud and self-reliant, so we make it as decent and unemotional an experience as possible.”
For the partner staff and community volunteers, the Aspen Mobile Pantry is a mutually nourishing endeavor. On the day I stopped by, a female client dropped off a party-size platter of homemade samosas with cilantro chutney. A native of India, the woman lives with her family in the Truscott Apartments a short walk away.
“That’s the perfect circle, isn’t it?” Sand marvels. “It’s been a gift to us, connecting in-person with a large number of people, and we’ve made friends. Food is a fundamental thing we all need (and) a way of showing care. If you can share good food in a spirit that is warm and compassionate, it helps everybody.”
Amanda Rae is the editor of “The Aspen Cookbook” (2020), a community fundraiser for restaurants through the Aspen Board of Realtors. AspenCookbook.com