Born out of a “spirit of collaboration,” Metro Caring embodies the generosity of the five local churches that helped found the nonprofit. Central Presbyterian, First Baptist of Denver, Trinity United Methodist, St. Paul’s Lutheran and St. Paul’s United Methodist (no longer in existence) realized they could combine their resources to reach a wider community than each church could on their own.
In 1974, they each decided to unite their efforts to make a bigger dent in their neighborhood’s need. Now, the local nonprofit builds equity by nourishing neighbors, providing tools to thrive and fostering community.
Through the front doors awaits a welcoming atmosphere: smiles at the front desk, a brightly-lit space and countless volunteers eager to assist those who seek Metro Caring’s services. Modeled more like a grocery store and less like a food bank, Metro Caring strives to “create a dignified experience” for their participants, as Ryan Eaton described it. As the Manager of Individual Giving and Faith Community Engagement, Eaton appreciates that Metro Caring treats people as individuals with varying needs.
After being greeted by the welcome desk volunteers, participants move to a waiting area to see a community navigator. These volunteers receive extensive training and help participants address other difficulties they face. Community navigators can then refer participants to Metro Caring’s programs:
- Seeds for Success job training programs
- Assistance in applying for SNAP benefits
- Assistance in obtaining an ID voucher to replace Colorado state IDs at no cost
- Assistance in paying utilities up to $1000 annually
- Diabetes education and management classes
- Educational cooking and nutrition classes
Walking through the market area feels like shopping in a grocery store. The shelves present participants with choices of varying brands of bread, a wide range of produce, and colorful flowers. Food is either rescued from various grocery stores in the area, including Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, or donated by individuals, corporations or faith groups.
“Every piece of food that comes in gets eyes put on it by somebody,” Eaton clarified. Some of the rescued food has passed its sell-by date but is still fresh enough to eat, and some of the produce is simply excess from grocery stores or local farms. Any food that is moldy or too old is composted, and other food items that don’t have health benefits – such as highly processed items or food with high quantities of sugar or high fructose corn syrup – are redistributed to other organizations. “That’s how we make sure we put out the best product available for people who need it,” said Eaton.
In this take-what-you-need market, participants are guided by volunteers who will help them push their cart and load their groceries into their car. Metro Caring encourages participants to take about a week’s worth of food for their household, and participants are allowed to come take food every 30 days.
Participant Mary Holeman is in her fourth month at Metro Caring. As she picked out some berries to add to her cart already filled with beautiful flowers and produce, Holeman explained that she keeps coming back because “it’s better than the other places” that she’s utilized in the past. With grandchildren at home, she appreciates that Metro Caring not only helps her put food on the table, but also connects her to other local organizations that help her find furniture and clothes for the kids.
Denver’s Need Grows with the Population
When Metro Caring was founded, they identified the Five Points, Capitol Hill and City Park neighborhoods of Denver as the area where most people needed food assistance, but as the city has grown, the need followed suit. Metro Caring’s reach now extends beyond the city limits to the surrounding suburbs.
As before participants often walked a few blocks to make use of Metro Caring’s facilities, now some participants take a bus all day to benefit from the organization’s resources. Those who travel to reach the organization’s hub often arrive with a large, empty suitcase to fill with fresh produce, loaves of bread and necessary toiletries they can find at the market.
After seeing the benefits of Metro Caring in their own lives, some participants give back to the organization by becoming volunteers or taking care of community gardens stewarded by the nonprofit. These gardens were recently offered to participants and volunteers to take care of and harvest. The gardeners can either keep the produce or donate it to Metro Caring. Eaton explained that giving participants a sense of responsibility for and ownership over the gardens is a way of empowering their community.
“We are trying to pivot in a couple ways. We’ve always been known as a hunger relief center, and we are trying to move more towards anti-hunger work. We are also trying to move doing for the community to doing with the community. Our community gardens are a way of doing that,” said Eaton.
The Lifeblood of the Organization
Metro Caring has a relatively small staff for the number of people they serve. They openly acknowledge that the volunteers are integral to the nonprofit’s success. “We want people when they come to Metro Caring to know who the lifeblood of our organization are, and that’s really the men and women who give their time, ” explained Eaton.
Volunteers greet participants, assist in addressing the participant’s needs, sort food in the warehouse, help participants in the market, teach educational cooking and nutrition classes and run job training sessions just to name a few of the many volunteer tasks.
In turn, volunteers become part of the Metro Caring family. Before each volunteer shift, everyone gathers to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, and other successes. Every step of the way, Metro Caring fosters the community and instills a love for giving.
Without prompting, volunteer Steve Armstrong dove into his love for Metro Caring. “If someone is looking for something to do volunteer-wise, this is the place to come. There’s always something to do, it’s always fun and number one is you’re helping some folks and when you go home, you feel good.”
“I love seeing the joy [Metro Caring] brings to people. I go home with a smile on my face. I stay happy here,” adds Angela Jones, a volunteer in the market.
Ending Hunger at its Root
“There’s this misconception about hunger, about people that are hungry, that you see people on the street corner with signs and you think those are the people who are hungry in Denver, but the truth is that one in 10 people in Colorado are struggling with food insecurity,” Eaton said in attempt to explain the difficulty the city of Denver faces.
Metro Caring acknowledges that there are systemic issues that affect much of Denver’s population. While the cost of living continues to increase, wages rarely reflect that. Metro Caring not only seeks to alleviate people’s immediate needs, but they constantly evaluate the reason people come in for assistance. They aim to sustainably address hunger by finding the root causes.
The organization’s tagline, “ending hunger at its root,” continues to challenge MetroCaring employees to seek sustainable solutions to the city’s hunger. They are thinking outside the conventional realm, asking themselves: “What would it look like to actually put ourselves out of business? To live in a world where places like Metro Caring aren’t necessary. What will that take?”
Though the staff is grateful that Metro Caring benefits such a large community in Denver, they also realize that people’s need for the organization is alarming. Eaton explained, “There are these systemic issues that are plaguing Denver. It’s poverty, it’s toxic stress, and dietary related diseases and the wage gap is huge.” In order to address a few of these systemic issues, the organization recently hired a community activator. The role of this staff member will be to listen to the participants and their needs, and then to rally the community around causes that will impact them.
“We exist because of the generosity of the community,” Eaton insisted.
Metro Caring is open Monday through Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and on Tuesday evenings from 6 to 8 p.m. They work on an appointment-based system, and ask that participants go online, call ahead or come in person to make an appointment.
To volunteer with Metro Caring, fill out an application on their website. With 500 volunteers a week, the opportunities to assist Metro Caring are endless. For more information on donating funds or food items, visit their website.
If you are looking for other ways to get involved, consider hosting a food drive at your office, faith community, or neighborhood association. Metro Caring also offers a Lunch and Learn program, where a member of the staff comes to your office during lunch and speaks about educational opportunities around food insecurity.
Cornucopia, Metro Caring’s annual fundraiser, is coming up on October 4. Tickets are on sale now on its website.
Metro Caring’s facilities are located at 1100 E. 18th Avenue, Denver.
All photography by Samantha Hines.