Historic brick building next to high-rise residential building. Sky is blue and partly cloudy. Trees in foreground are bare indicating winter

Safely helping our food-insecure neighbors

Sidewalk pantries and community fridges are wonderful additions to our neighborhoods, but ensuring the food is safe for the consumer is paramount. DDPHE regulates how food can be shared in Denver to keep residents safe from contamination. The city offers many options and opportunities for prepared meals and grocery pick up to keep Denverites fed in these trying times.

You may have seen them around D10 – small sidewalk pantries popping up in our neighborhoods. They’re all over the place. For example, there is one attached to a little library between 11th & 12th on Ogden – conveniently kitty-corner from the newly reopened Ideal Market. Or how about the one that Capitol Hill United Neighborhoods put in at the Tears McFarlane House?

I’m so proud of how District 10 residents come together to help one another out like this!

There is one caution we want to point out – while free food fridges/pantries are a great option for when pantry or emergency meal providers are not open, our Department of Public Health and Environment does not want to encourage or allow sharing homemade/leftover meals that don’t meet the city’s cottage food rules for food safety reasons (see basic guidelines about allowable foods here). We’ve heard from a handful of people who were confused about why the City won’t endorse the practice of leaving homemade food in community refrigerators.

Since I agree that it isn’t wise for Denver to be officially sanctioning something that may – or may not – provide health and safety concerns for the people of Denver, especially our most vulnerable, I asked for a briefing to make sure I understood what alternatives were possible since I want to continue to encourage people to help their neighbors.

DDPHE loves that people are stepping up to help their neighbors during such trying times. They suggest that if folks are most interested in preparing meals specifically to share, they connect with and volunteer with one of the many pantries or emergency food providers in the city who have food-safe kitchens to prepare food. Because the street fridges are not inspected locations, the City cannot assure that home-prepared meals are kept safe over time. Unfortunately, there is no way to monitor unintentional or intentional contamination. And, sadly, it is true that sometimes those hit hardest are intentionally targeted.

Denver has many other options and opportunities for prepared meals or food pantry pickups of groceries. For example, both children and adults can get meals 5 days a week from Denver Public Schools, and kids can pick up meals from Recreation Centers through the Tasty Food program (maps of locations and hours can be found here). There are also 95 pantries operating in or directly adjacent to Denver. A map and list of locations with contact information and operating hours can be found here. Many of these programs provide grocery boxes, but some also provide prepared meal options.

Additionally, some users of the fridges may also be eligible for SNAP or WIC benefits and can find out more through the Department of Human Services or by signing up for benefits through the state. All of these resources can also be accessed through the Hunger Free Colorado Food Resource Hotline (1-855-855-4626) that can do the heavy lifting to refer folks to the easiest resources (e.g. closest to home, those with delivery options, right types of food for their family, etc.) or through the city’s 311 system. If you have a public pantry – I would suggest printing off these resources to attach to the pantry to make it easier for others to find.

A couple basics to understand about distributing food:

  • Service of food to the public is subject to the Denver Rules & Regulations Governing Food Establishments
  • Food needs to be stored in such a way that is secure and not subject to contaminants
  • Other requirements, such as keeping refrigerated foods at 41 F or less, also apply
  • Only Cottage Foods compliant with all requirements can be prepared in a home kitchen and served to the public

We have excellent staff in DDPHE and they said they would be happy to help work with any organizers of these efforts to see if there is a way to address the safety issues noted above and to provide some guidance.

If you are interested in working with DDPHE, Teresa in our office would be happy to connect you. You can email her directly at Teresa.St.peter@denvergov.org.

Stay Healthy!