Chico Basin Ranch ranch apprentice Louis Qualia, puts boxes of beef into the shade of a car as he and others distribute the meat to families outside of the Hanover Fire Station near the ranch on April 25. The families are able to drive up and stay in their cars while people from the ranch place it into their cars. So far the ranch has given away almost 10,000 pounds of beef. Ranch manager Tess Leach says the goal is to help all families in need. (Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post)

Colorado’s bluebird skies were showing off on Saturday morning, stretching beyond the edges of the endless prairie land south of Colorado Springs. Through her car window, Karina Romaniello spotted cows and horses dotting the dry landscape. She was more focused on her destination than the countryside, though.

Pulling up to the Hanover Fire Station, she told a friendly woman her name. In return, she received a bag filled with 10 pounds of Colorado ground beef. It was free — and it felt like a godsend.

Days earlier, Romaniello was trying to decide between filling her barren refrigerator and paying her cell phone bill and car insurance. Then an email appeared in her inbox: It was her turn to sign up for a gratis package of ground beef. Since early April, Ranchlands, a conservation-focused agricultural business that operates cattle and bison ranches across the West, has been organizing pickups of farm-raised beef for those struggling as a result of the pandemic.

Ranchlands’ family-run operation is headquartered at 90,000-acre Chico Basin Ranch, which is located about 45 minutes southeast of the Springs. It’s already gifted more than 3,000 pounds of local meat to 1,478 community members.

Meat processing plants across the country are running hundreds of thousands less animals than usual, and outbreaks at meat packing facilities, including the JBS USA Plant in Greeley, have resulted in empty meat and poultry cases at grocery stores and higher prices when the products are available. (On April 28, President Trump named meat processing plants “critical infrastructure” in an attempt to stave off such shortages.)

On top of that are the record-breaking unemployment claims — nearly 380,000 have been filed in Colorado in the past six weeks.

“These are tough times. There’s a lot of fear of the unknown,” said Ranchlands founder and CEO Duke Phillips III, a third-generation Coloradan and rancher. “We do a lot of with the community. We have concerts. We have art gatherings. We said to ourselves: How can we help? Having a food product was the most obvious way.”

Within 24 hours of posting and sending out a form where families in need could sign up for the donation, Ranchlands received about 4,000 responses. Through its nonprofit Ranchlands Foundation and sales of Chico Basin-produced leather goods, the small team has raised more than $10,000, enough to process about 10 animals. (Each yields approximately 400 pounds of meat.) Ranchlands partnered with two Eastern Colorado processing plants to harvest the protein; additional beef has been donated by Lasater Grasslands Beef and Sangres Best Grass Finished Beef.

Dozens of pounds of beef stay cool in the shade of a car during a beef giveaway at the Hanover Fire Station near the ranch on April 25 in Hanover, Colorado. During the coronavirus pandemic, Ranchlands Foundation at Chico Basin Ranch is in the process of donating thousands of pounds of local beef for needy families in Colorado. (Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post)

For Romaniello, accessing meat isn’t a luxury. It’s critical. She made the 40-minute drive to the fire station from downtown Colorado Springs to find sustenance for her 10-year-old son, Kallen. He was recently diagnosed with eosinophilic esophagitis, a chronic inflammatory disease of the esophagus that can make eating difficult and painful. It took three years to finally figure out what was wrong; during that time, Kallen experienced debilitating pain and Romaniello lost her job and they were evicted from their apartment.

Kallen’s diet is now extremely limited, consisting primarily of meat and vegetables.

“It’s so expensive. It’s expensive to eat healthy,” Romaniello said.

She was furloughed from her most recent human resources job because of coronavirus, and her unemployment and food stamp benefits are still pending.

“It was honestly the biggest blessing ever,” she said of the ground beef. “I could actually pay my cell phone and car insurance and still have food in the fridge for him.”

Mother and son have already enjoyed burgers and made spaghetti from zucchini noodles using the farm-fresh meat.

Tess Leach, director of business operations at Chico Basin Ranch, shows off her mask during their beef giveaway outside of the Hanover Fire Station near the ranch on April 25 in Hanover, Colorado. For the past four weekends, people who have signed up on the ranch’s website drive to the Hanover Fire Station near the ranch to pick up for free ten pounds of beef for each family. (Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post)

“[The number of] people in need has been really significant,” said Tess Leach, Phillips’ daughter and head of business development. “Overall, this has been a really uplifting positive thing, just the outpouring of support for this project.”

So far, Ranchlands has hosted four giveaways, with about 150 cars coming through each time. They’ve served a wide variety of people, from veterans to individuals who’ve lost their jobs or been furloughed to families who suddenly need to feed their kids an extra meal a day because school is out but don’t have the means to do so.

Chico Basin exists in its own world, fed by Chico Creek and surrounded by shortgrass prairie. (The ranch is owned by the Colorado State Land Board; Ranchlands leases and manages the property.) Sitting on a hill on the land, Phillips III describes it as “looking out to forever.” But the ranch’s tranquil surroundings are also just 45 minutes from both Pueblo and Colorado Springs, as well as smaller communities that lack easy access to provisions. “With the onset of coronavirus, we kept reading and hearing about so many people out of work who couldn’t afford food or couldn’t find meat protein in the grocery stores,” Leach said. “We saw an opportunity that a little effort on our end could make a really significant impact for people right now.”

To maintain proper physical distancing, the three-hour-long donation days operate like a drive-through: Families sign up for 30-minute time slots and line up on the dirt road outside the fire station in their cars. When they pull up to the front, Ranchlands staff confirm their names and then hand them the bags of meat. While the ground beef donations won’t continue indefinitely, the ranchers have committed to helping all of the families that sign up.

“It’s such a volatile, scary time right now, and it was hard initially because it [the ground beef program] felt like so little. We were thinking it’s probably a drop of water in the ocean,” said Chief Operating Officer Duke Phillips IV. “Then we did the first round and were completely inundated. It changed the perspective. Even if you can help some people a little bit, they’re in a better place than they were the day before or the hour before or the week before.”

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Hanover Road heading east towards Chico Basin Ranch is empty of cars on April 25 in Hanover, Colorado. (Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post)