On average, one in ten people in Colorado are food insecure, and during the pandemic that figure has increased dramatically to one in three, according to Hunger Free Colorado.
Our partners at the Village Exchange Center are serving some of the hardest hit families in Aurora, Colo., and the Denver metro area during COVID-19: immigrant and refugee communities. Village Exchange Center not only brings people from different backgrounds together for cross-cultural sharing and development –but also provides critical services to community members in need.
The Village Exchange Center has completely shifted its operations this year to help the local community access nutritious food and train to enter the workforce. Through their Village Food Pantry initiative, the organization is offering curbside pickup and delivery, and now serves over 3100 people per week. The organization is also partnering with Dawn Clinic to provide medical supplies to uninsured refugee and immigrant patients. By providing weekly product donations, Gotham Greens has been able to support the incredibly important work Village Exchange Center is doing in our community and beyond.
We spoke with Village Exchange Center to hear about their work, experiences, and the importance of building and maintaining community. Here are few messages from the VEC family:
How have things shifted since COVID-19?
Alejandra, Senior Manager of Services: We’ve been able to get to know more of our community – all the groups that were in need but we hadn’t served in the past with our small program. Now we have a huge and complex program that every single person on our team has been involved in. We’ve tripled the number of people we serve. Now, we are in need of more volunteers to serve and help with our larger programs. We accept donations, and your time is always welcome here. We are serving as best and as much as we can through COVID, and will continue.
How do you typically prepare for the increased need in the winter months?
Alejandra, Senior Manager of Services: In general, winter is a hard season to serve our community in a proper way. We as a team make an effort to serve the best way we can. We are making a plan to help people avoid freezing weather. To avoid communities waiting too long for help, we are working to reduce our reaction time in providing bags to the community.
What does a typical day look like for you and your volunteers?
Alejandra, Senior Manager of Services: Our typical day is a busy day, but it’s full of sharing, laughing and hard work. We have fun organizing all the food and items for our community. I’ve always said that the volunteers are 99% of the program’s soul. Our best days are when they come.
We are so honored to work with and learn from your team, and be able to support your mission.
Alejandra, Senior Manager of Services: Gotham Greens is a great partner and such a nice company. Their lettuce and basil are so beautiful, everyone likes it. Our communities have changed their menus because they love the lettuce so much! Gotham Greens comes every Tuesday to provide the most beautiful produce. We are working with them to provide a better quality of life for our community. They are kind people. As a community center, to have a company like Gotham Greens come in and help has been huge, and we feel very grateful for them.
How did you get started and what inspired you to begin this project?
Sam, Farm Manager at Village Farms: I actually started volunteering here with the after-school program two years ago. I fell in love with the people and the work. I heard about the opportunity for VEC to start a farm project and was very excited about the opportunity. My background is in farming and agriculture, and I believe farming and food justice are a critical part of a resilient healthy community. My particular interest is also spending time outside and helping people connect with our natural environment. Especially in a city, it’s great for youth, adults, and recently arrived immigrants and refugees to have a place to connect with the natural world – to learn about farming, construction, carpentry, and have a place to find community.
Tell us about your ties to the city and neighborhood.
Sam, Farm Manager at Village Farms: I was actually born about two miles away in Aurora so I feel very close to this community, neighborhood and landscaping.
What has been the most gratifying result of your work?
Sam, Farm Manager at Village Farms: To see people fall in love with our farm, and the power of connecting with the natural world. To see community members really connect with the physical place and feel a sense of comfort, belonging, and meaningful work growing food for our community. And to have the kids from our afterschool program begin to create a relationship with the farm. I hope that continues as they grow up here and become active adults in the community with a relationship to this small piece of land – and the food grown here.
Getting to grow food that’s organic and local to distribute in our community feels extremely gratifying. We grew 1000 bunches of kale for our food pantry this year. Just to know these nutritious greens, that were grown with so much care and attention, are now with families in close by neighborhoods is extremely gratifying.
Why is it important to have food pantries?
Marcel Narucki, Co-Founder and Director of Multifaith Services: The obvious thing is that you are helping people who are in need, and struggling. But there is another layer of it to me – this is a difficult time for everybody. If you’re needing food, you’re probably also needing community. So it’s a way to respond to a real need, but also a possibility to help people and bring them into communities. That’s why it’s really important right now.
What does a food pantry mean to you?
Alex: It means a lot of things to me. First, it means food justice, which is super important through this pandemic. People are in need right now, and that’s what can make a difference. I think food pantries also mean love for others, which is super important these days. We have to care for people. And lastly, it’s the opportunity to be well-nourished and healthy.
It’s been quite a year and your team has rallied to support our local Denver + Aurora communities. What are you thankful for this Thanksgiving?
Alejandra, Senior Manager of Services: I’m especially thankful to have the opportunity to serve our team and our community. To have the opportunity to serve, and all the people that are helping us serve, is a blessing. I will always be thankful for this opportunity.
Gloria, Office Manager and Executive Assistant: This year I am so grateful for empathetic family and friends. This year has been one of the most challenging, and I’m sure that’s true for a lot of you. I’m grateful for friends and family members who can share empathy because that’s what will heal us.
Aliria: I’m thankful that I have a job, that I am able to work and serve those in need. I’m thankful that I have been able to keep myself healthy through this pandemic.
How can people help the Aurora community and support your work?
Alejandra, Senior Manager of Services: Help us spread the word. Go to villageexchangecenter.org and make a donation. Get to know more about our programs. If you know of someone who is in need of our services, please send them our information. If you want to volunteer, follow us on Instagram, Facebook, and sign up for our newsletter for more info!
We’re excited to share the bounty from our Denver team’s canned drive with the Village Exchange Center community. What’s your favorite Thanksgiving dish that incorporates canned goods?
Austin: Duh, pumpkin pie! You can make great pie from canned pumpkins. Or anything from canned green beans and cranberry sauce. I’m not sure if they make canned stuffing, but I’d eat it.
Follow along here to learn more about what the Village Exchange Center team has been up to and find out how you can get involved.