Metro Caring helps feed 23,000 people each year in Denver with its supermarket-style pantry – The Denver Post

Robin McClain had been many things in her lifetime, including mother and housewife, but the one thing the 50-year-old said she never expected to be was homeless.

Yet there she was, alone and standing in line this summer for the first time at a local homeless shelter trying to ensure she had a place to lay her head for the night. It was a process she would repeat nearly every day for two months.

“I never thought I’d be there and you come to appreciate people and things a lot more,”  McClain said.

The difference, she said, came from a visit to an unassuming two-story building at the corner of East 18th Avenue and Downing Street.

“For two months, no one knew that I was homeless and I didn’t want to become a product of my environment,” McClain said of her visits to Metro Caring, a nonprofit hunger-relief center on the city’s near eastside. “It wasn’t at all what I thought it would be, like a regular food bank or something.”

Metro Caring is a recipient of Season to Share funding.

What McClain quickly found was “a place where everyone was affectionate, passionate for what they do.”

In short order, McClain became one of Metro Caring’s top volunteers, one of 5,000 the organization enjoys each year.

“I got the job as a fluke,” she said. “I was just coming for a week to help out, and then I simply didn’t want to leave.”

What she found was an extensive organization that helps feed more than 23,000 people each year through a supermarket-style pantry in which families come in to supplement what their paychecks can’t handle.

“People can come and have a relatively dignified experience where they have healthy options,” chief executive director Teva Sienicki said during a recent visit, noting that the food area sees more than 60,000 visits annually, meaning folks are repeat customers.

That’s a bit disheartening, Sienicki said, despite all the good the agency is able to accomplish.

“I don’t want to see us stay on the hamster wheel of giving out more and more food to more and more people because we’ve been doing that charitable food model in the US for over 40 years,” she said. “We were designed as an emergency food aid for temporary tough times. What it’s become is almost part of the daily life. To me that’s an unacceptable state for the richest country in the world.”

Metro Caring also helps with 21,000 ID vouchers each year, as well as utility assistance to some 750 families.

Visitors can also take classes in diabetes-prevention and healthy-living choices taught by one of two-dozen full-time staffers or the myriad of volunteers.

“I can’t tell you how it feels to see a family come in with kids, with more than one child, all of them little and you know they’re hungry,” McClain said. “And when you give them a little something, a piece of fruit or some other healthy snack and they’re just delighted.”

Much of the work in helping impart a dignified experience, McClain said, is sharing her own story.

“I let them know they’ll be all right, that they can do it,” she said. “I let them know they have something to fight for. That it can work and will be better.”

To foster better days, the organization is partnering with nearby St. Joseph’s Hospital to bring a shipping container that will double as a job-training center. The hospital will pay the utilities, Sienicki said.

There are community gardens as well as an on-site greenhouse where participants grow food  from the smallest herbs to spinach and artichokes.

Each family leaves with about 80 pounds of food of their choice, 35 percent of which is usually fresh produce. There are lessons in proper nutrition – a volunteer recently had clients playing a shopper’s game identifying the amount of sugar in common products — and cooking classes.

In all, though, the organization distributes about 2.5 million pounds of food yearly, much of it donated from local grocers, faith communities, companies and individuals. Nearly three-quarters of the food is “rescued,” meaning it was likely destined for a landfill if not for the program.

Despite all the programming,  Sienicki said she’d prefer to see the organization go back to its roots.

“One in seven children in Denver lack sufficient food,” she said. “We don’t need more Metro Carings or bigger locations, but rather need to fix the system. My ideal world is to ultimately do what we were designed to do: Offer temporary help for those who have fallen on temporary tough times, and not simply be the safety net for our city.”

Name of charity: Metro Caring
Address: 1100 E. 18th Ave., Denver
Year it started: 1974
Number of employees: 24 full-time; 5,000 volunteers
Annual budget: $7.8 million ($6.2 million in distributed food product) in 2017.
Percentage of funds that goes directly to client services: More than 90 percent
Number served last year: 23,000 people with more than 61,000 visits in the food market; 750 families for utility assistance; 21,000 people with ID vouchers.

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