South-metro food pantries collaborate to feed thousands

Food Exchange Resource Network operates out of large warehouse

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Denver resident Maria, who declined to give her last name, was doing house cleaning services before the COVID-19 pandemic forced her out of a job.

Maria receives benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a federal program that helps low-income Americans purchase groceries — but sometimes, the program doesn’t provide enough support for her. So, to get food she’ll occasionally go to Community Ministry of Southwest Denver’s food pantry at 1755 S. Zuni St.

“To tell you the truth, it’s very helpful when you don’t get (enough support from SNAP). It’s hard for people to survive like that, but I’m glad there’s places like this one,” said Maria as she packed a grocery cart of food from the pantry into her car on Aug. 20.

Some of the food from Community Ministry of Southwest Denver comes from the Food Exchange Resource Network (FERN) — a food resource collaborative located at a 15,000-square-foot warehouse at 2830 S. Zuni St. in Englewood.

The network is made up of seven sharing partners and eight participating member food pantries, such as Community Ministry of Southwest Denver, who share the warehouse that holds food, serves as a major food distribution center, increases storage capacity and the amount of food available for those in need and serves as a space where the network can share food and other resources.

“We can’t make it all on our own. Unless we’re working together, we’re all going to be in big trouble and no one will be served very well,” said Joyce Neufeld, executive director of Community Ministry of Southwest Denver and president of FERN. “We all benefit off of each other’s services.”

FERN was started in 2011 after it received a grant from the Denver Foundation, an organization that helps to mobilize resources to strengthen the community. The Denver Foundation helped to fund three formal food pantry collaborations like FERN to create changes in delivering food and to advance best practices within the emergency food delivery system.

At the time, Community Ministry of Southwest Denver was collaborating with other food pantries. Neufeld said the most common need for the pantry partnership was storage to hold refrigerated food, and with the grant, the pantries were able to purchase a large fridge, a walk-in freezer and other resources at the warehouse.

“Sometimes, you get major food loads in, and then you’re scrambling for (storage space),” said Neufeld.

The partners of FERN — Colorado Feeding Kids, Colorado Pet Pantry, Community Ministry of Southwest Denver, Denver Metro Ministries, MetroCaring and St. Mary’s Parish Pantry — rent space in the warehouse to hold their goods and supplies. The members — Brentwood United Methodist Church’s Table of Grace, Mercy Housing, New Apostolic Church Pantry, Nourish Meals on Wheels, Sharing with Sheridan and others such as Integrated Family Community Services — pay a fee to FERN on a monthly basis for access to the shared food.

Partners and members all have access to large distributions of food and workspace to receive and process large donations.

“It’s like a grocery store for us,” said Todd McPherson, development director for Integrated Family Community Services — a nonprofit based in Arapahoe County that provides necessities such as clothing and food through its food bank at 3370 S. Irving St. in Englewood.

“We all have to play together and maximize what we can do as a group more so than trying to do it individually,” said McPherson.

Last year, 202,000 residents were served through the food pantries of FERN while 59,316 pets were provided with food by the Colorado Pet Pantry. Neufeld said at this time last year, Community Ministry of Southwest Denver was serving around 800 people a month. But in the midst of a pandemic, that number is up to at least 1,200 a month now.

FERN is in need of donations to carry out improvements to the warehouse for features like security cameras and lighting, Neufeld said. People can donate to FERN at fernfoodbank.org.

“There’s been such generosity in a lot of ways. Everyone is worried, and they are worried about people going hungry,” said Neufeld. “I know that won’t last long because the longer (the pandemic) goes on, people will lose their spirit of giving, I think after a while. And then there are places that have popped up that are serving food now that never did. Once the weather comes, they won’t be there. Agencies like (Community Ministry of Southwest Denver) and others that are part of FERN — we’ll still be here when the other people are gone.”

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