Denver high school food bank serves hundreds

The food bank at West Leadership Academy launched earlier this year


In the parking lot of the former West High School, a truck from We Don’t Waste is backing up toward a small group of volunteers. As soon as drivers have unloaded the first pallet of food from the truck, the group gets to work, unloading tomatoes, breads and juice cartons onto trolleys.

Mary Rita Cordova, who helps run the food bank at West, at 951 Elati St., calls delivery days “surprise Fridays.” Volunteers are never sure what kinds of food the school will receive from We Don’t Waste, a local nonprofit that takes in unused foods from caterers, events and grocery stores, and distributes them to other organizations. We Don’t Waste takes anything from produce to baggies of tomato soup.

The food banks serves what is now West Leadership Academy and West Early College, both programs serve grades 6-12. 

We Don’t Waste started providing food to West at the start of this school year. It is only one of the nonprofits helping to stock shelves at the school. Food For Thought and Food Bank of the Rockies help provide shelf stable items such as cereals and canned goods.

“We have a couple young kids who can’t wait to get into the pantry,” Cordova said. “They want to know if there’s peanut butter, they want to know if there’s cereal.”

Teachers at West, such as Amy Fink, had heard about the food bank program that started at South High School four years ago. Cordova then connected with Jaclyn Yelich who runs the food bank there. Yelich does the ordering for both food banks. They started serving students at West on April 6.

Fink ran the program at first. Cordova called her a “one-man show,” because she was teaching and running the food bank. She often would have to pick up food as well because there weren’t enough volunteers in the beginning. When the work load became too much, Cordova took over.

‘Kids make you feel special’

Cordova said the need for a food bank at West was apparent on day one when they served 140 kids in the yearbook room at the high school — about the same number of students served by the four-year-old program at South.

“(Jaclyn) told me it took them a year to build up their clientele,” Cordova said.

Since then, the food bank has hit a peak of 300 students per week. The building was formerly West High School. It expanded in 2011 into West Leadership Academy and West Early College, which has both a middle and high school. The two schools have about 1,500 students, Cordova estimated.

Cordova has spent most of her life wandering the halls of West High School. She graduated from the school in 1963, and eventually came back to work there. At the peak of her career she was secretary for Irene Jordan, who was principal from 1997-2001. Cordova retired in 2000.

But she can’t leave West behind. She volunteers with the alumni association. She has also done projects at the school such as filing and keeping track of records, which are kept in the alumni room, another pet project of hers. When Cordova needed help running the food bank through the alumni association, she knew exactly who to call — Jordan.

For Jordan, working in the food bank has been about showing kids that it’s OK to ask for help. Working with children throughout her life has brought joy to her life.

“Kids, they can make you feel very special,” Jordan said. “But I also think it’s very important for kids to feel like adults care about them.”

Cordova agreed, saying that even at 73, she is “energized” when she comes to work at the food bank every week.

Food rarely left over

The food bank also offers to-go bags for students. Students helped by making pre-packaged bags for students that had to catch a bus immediately after school. They started with 10 bags a week. But the bags quickly flew off shelves. So they bumped up to 15, and eventually to 60, Cordova said.

Since they are working to recruit more volunteers to run the food bank, Cordova and Jordan often bring in family members or grab nearby students and teachers to help out. Things run smoothly because of Cordova, Jordan said.

“It all seems very simple,” Jordan said. “Part of the reason is because she is terribly organized and has everything ready for everybody.”

Every week, volunteers set up four tables of fresh food for students. The volunteers put veggies together in bags to encourage students to take things they wouldn’t normally try. Although the tables are piled up with food when students first start to come through, it doesn’t last long.

“By the time we’re done, they’re empty,” Cordova said. “It’s rare that we have anything left to put in the refrigerator.”

Week by week, they are learning how to best serve students, Jordan said. She added that many of the kids will turn down items if they know they already have some at home.

“They don’t take things just to take things,” she said. “They only take what they need.”


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