Scooping and chatting

Denver Cherry Creek Rotary Club portions bulk food to help Metro Caring serve community

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The Denver Cherry Creek Rotary Club is a small club, but its 30 members are dedicated to making a big impact.

“Our motto is ‘Service Above Self,’” said Joel Russman, a Washington Park resident who has been a Rotarian for more than 15 years. “When the pandemic hit, we were looking for something we could do.”

Early on, the club heard about the toll that the COVID-19 virus was taking on health-care providers, and began delivering meals to five Denver-area hospitals. This effort continued for about six weeks — roughly from late March to early May — until the need was not as great, Russman said.

But the group wanted to do more, Russman added. So, having a previously established relationship with Metro Caring — a nonprofit anti-hunger organization located in Denver’s City Park West neighborhood — the Rotary Club reached out to see if they could help during the pandemic.

“What they needed,” Russman said, “was help portioning food.”

Pre-pandemic, Metro Caring offered a Fresh Foods market for choice shopping. During COVID-19, however, the organization began providing pre-packaged boxes of food to people as a drive-up service to adhere to social distancing measures.

“We quickly saw a large disruption in the dry goods supply chain,” said Tommy Crosby, food access manager for Metro Caring, “and needed a creative way to meet the requests of our community for staple items such as rice, beans, oats and flour.”

All “shelf-size” dry goods were going to grocery stores, he said, but Crosby was able to procure dry goods in bulk. Still, there was the predicament of having the extra volunteers and volunteer time to get the goods into smaller portions. Metro Caring also did not have the space to do the repackaging work.

This is where the Rotary Club comes in.

Russman knew of a warehouse in the Northeast Park Hill neighborhood that had approximately 20,000-sqaure-feet of space that was not being used. He was able to make an arrangement to use the space free-of-charge.

Metro Caring then provided the equipment needed for the food portioning and repackaging; and the training for proper food handling such as cleanliness and sanitary procedures, as well as food portioning guidelines.

“This is the type of thing Rotarians enjoy doing,” Russman said. “We like rolling up our sleeves and doing things.”

Everything was up and running by the first week of June, Russman said. He expects the effort to continue until either the space is rented to an outside party or Metro Caring no longer has the need to portion the bulk food.

“It’s likely to keep going for the foreseeable future,” Russman said.

He added that the Rotary Club is seeking volunteers to help with the effort. The space allows for 16 to 20 volunteers at a time to maintain social distancing measures for a three-hour shift. Volunteers must be under the age of 65 and in good health. Minimum age is 14, unless accompanied by an adult, and there is a maximum of two children per adult.

It is a great volunteer opportunity for an individual, couple or a group such as a faith-based organization, a sports team, a book club or a Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts troop, Russman said.

“A lot of people want to do something, but don’t know how to help,” he said. “This is just scooping, and chatting. But it gets food out to hungry people. The volunteers look at the food they processed in three hours, and they’re proud of it. They walk away charged.”

Food is something that everybody needs and serves as a tool for togetherness, Crosby said.

“This project is bringing people together around food, to make sure that bellies are full,” Crosby said. “Volunteers are showing up with our community, the Rotary Club is showing up with our community, Metro Caring is showing up with our community. We’ve built this together and will continue to do so, until no Coloradan goes hungry.”

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