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Fighting hunger in Gunnison County

“There is so much we are doing, and there’s still so much more to do”

By Katherine Nettles

When most people think of a small mountain town with an internationally famous ski resort, they might not consider the issues below the surface, such as hunger and poverty. It isn’t always obvious that many of the people working to operate the resort live elsewhere, commuting during the darkest hours of the day and managing their own challenges outside of plain sight. When having a brief exchange with someone in a service industry, it might not occur to us that he or she could be experiencing food insecurity.

But according to the Gunnison County food pantry, Gunnison County residents have the highest rate of eligibility for food support services in the state of Colorado, with one in 10 Gunnison County residents considered “food insecure.” Yet the county’s population has very low enrollment in those resources, which means that among the people who qualify for government assistance, there is a huge gap in those using it.

The pantry is working to alleviate these problems in several ways through daily distributions, an emergency food box program, senior services, and children services.

Cassidy Tawse-Garcia, who just recently left the position of executive director for the food pantry, sat down with me on a cold day in early December to talk about how the pantry has evolved over the past few years. Tawse-Garcia was at the time preparing to step away from the position she held with the pantry in order to pursue travel, her Hispanic heritage and the food systems in developing countries of Central America.

Tawse-Garcia had spent the past few years with the food pantry creating the Gunnison Valley Resources Guide, a living document that Gunnison Valley Health and Human Services uses and offers to others as well. This includes everything from the Roaring Judy Fish Hatchery fish giveaways, churches that offer soup dinners, and even a road kill list, which distributes meat from deer and elk struck and killed by cars in the area. She organized the first Stone Soup event, which has now become an annual fundraiser and community-building event for the pantry. Tawse-Garcia speaks candidly about the problems facing low-income residents of Gunnison County, of the connections between a higher cost of living and fewer economic opportunities, and of the undertakings the pantry manages throughout the year.

Citing a study in 2015 which found that Gunnison County has the highest concentration of children living in poverty in the state, Tawse-Garcia said this is “mostly due to the rural nature of our county.”

Furthermore, 36 percent of Coloradans make just enough income that they cannot qualify for social food programs—so if they get caught in between affordability and access, they sometimes might have to choose between groceries and paying their heating bill, said Tawse-Garcia. In those cases, the food pantry can be their only option.

It is a misconception, says Tawse-Garcia, that as the economy improves, wages keep up with the cost of living. Twenty-seven percent of renters in the valley spend 50 percent or more of their income on housing, she says.

Tawse-Garcia, who has been immersed in food in various ways throughout her life, from growing up on an organic farm in Boulder to making cheese in Vermont, first came into contact with the food pantry while working on her master’s thesis, examining how the immigrant community in the Gunnison Valley engages with the food system.

“For me what was so appealing about working for the food pantry was just the people that it serves,” Tawse-Garcia said. She focused her time on the availability of nutrition for those who the pantry serves, describing the concept of nutrients over calories and the struggle to procure fresh produce, nutrient-dense food, and teaching people how to make healthy choices while working with donation items and a very tight budget.

The pantry itself serves anyone who walks in the door. Its stated mission is to provide food to anyone who asks, regardless of age, race, gender, class, or origin. No questions asked.

The daily distributions are a major undertaking in their own right. The pantry is open three days per week at its small storefront on North Main Street in Gunnison, and it served 3,500 people last year.

The average visitor uses the pantry an average of five times per year, says Tawse-Garcia, often during off-season times or before paychecks for a new job have started kicking in. Additionally, the pantry works with the community to specifically target issues for children, seniors, immigrants, anyone in an emergency situation, and those who can benefit from more knowledge of food.

Children services

The pantry reports that 25 percent of the students in Gunnison County School District qualify for Free and Reduced Meals (FARM), a federally assisted school meal program.

The pantry supplements the government program by also providing snacks to school nurses to give out at their discretion, rather than requiring yet another set of enrollment program forms and the possible stigma involved for the children who need to ask for a snack during school hours.

“It’s not enough that they are on the FARM programs, or that their families are eligible for other assistance,” says Tawse-Garcia. If the pantry wanted to provide government-funded snacks, it might lose many recipients due to the process, she says. “I would rather err on the side of providing one child a snack that they don’t technically need, than the opposite scenario,” she said. So the pantry provides the snacks at its own cost.

Senior services

The pantry serves a group of approximately 100 seniors on a consistent basis, says Tawse-Garcia. Many of them are homebound and limited in their mobility. “So this gives them a social aspect and sense of community.” Senior Day at the pantry becomes a weekly chance for people to greet one another, and it gives them something to look forward to as well, she says.

Immigrant services

A unique aspect of the Gunnison immigrant population, explains Tawse-Garcia, is that the largest groups of Cora immigrants in the United States reside between Gunnison and Delta. Cora is an indigenous population from the Sierra Madre Occidental Mountain range in northeastern Mexico that speaks its own language, also called Cora. Spanish is a common second language for Cora to speak, but coming from a very rural, agricultural-based area, many of the people who immigrate here do not have formal education and therefore may be able to understand Spanish, but not read it.

Among this population, visits to the pantry are actually lower. “We felt it was important,” says Tawse-Garcia, to improve the Spanish signage and begin offering translators to make the pantry a less intimidating prospect. “There is a need, but the comfort level needs to be there,” she says.

In 2018 the pantry instituted Spanish-language hours on Wednesday evenings, from 5 to 7 p.m., in order to address this.

Emergency boxes

For those who find themselves in immediate need of food, the pantry offers emergency boxes at 25 locations throughout the county. There are two types: one is for an individual, and one is for a family of four. Each contains enough nonperishable food to last three days, and the Marshal’s Office, the Crested Butte Library, the Almont Lodge, and the Crested Butte/Mt. Crested Butte Chamber of Commerce are among the locations. The pantry reports that there is generally an uptick in the demand for these emergency boxes during summer months, and, notes Tawse-Garcia, “We gave twice as many to Health and Human Services in 2018 as we did the previous year.”

An emergency box can be obtained by calling the local police dispatch.

Education

The pantry food distribution and emergency box programs are not meant to be a long-term resource for someone, of course. In order to increase the self-sufficiency of its visitors, education and outreach programs are also in place.

There is a problem of having access to food, explains Tawse-Garcia, and then there is another issue of having access to and understanding of nutrition. To this end, the pantry works hard to provide fresh food choices to people, and it also does extensive outreach to build up people’s self reliance.

Some food pantry patrons become volunteers as a way to contribute, which can build up their sense of helping others and sharing information. The pantry also offers six-week cooking classes, which teach attendees how to shop for and prepare a well-balanced meal for a family of four for less than $10.

“If we are going to work together as a community…we need to be able to offer them the skills to be self sufficient,” says Tawse-Garcia.

Funding

The connection between the Crested Butte community and the food pantry is that while only 15 percent of food pantry visitors reside in the northern end of the valley, many of the visitors commute to and work in the northern end of the valley. For this reason, the pantry has for the first time in 2018 attended Town Council meetings in both Crested Butte and Mt. Crested Butte to request funding from each entity.

“It’s all connected, and I think as we consider affordable housing, we should be thinking about food security as well,” says Tawse-Garcia.

“The food pantry works to address food insecurity throughout the county, which includes Mt. Crested Butte,” Tawse-Garcia said in November, as she presented the pantry’s work to the town.

“We have had 9,902 visits to the facility this year, which is about on par with last year. It is obvious that people who reside in your community are using it,” she said. Crested Butte Mountain Resort, which employs approximately 1,000 people, told Tawse-Garcia they anticipate that about half of the employees live in Gunnison.

The pantry has to raise approximately $40,000 per year to purchase fruit, vegetables, meat, dairy, and eggs for its visitors and for its school snacks program.

“We could all work more collaboratively to encourage people who qualify to enroll in these programs. We are asking for funds from all entities,” Tawse-Garcia said.

The pantry plans to begin tracking places of employment for visitors on its intake forms in 2019 in order to identify where people spend their time in the valley as well.

Among improvements are a new $35,000 refrigerated van granted from Wal-Mart, LLC, which enables pantry volunteers to pick up produce from backyard gardeners, low-income CSA programs, restaurants and other donors.

This is the first year the pantry has paid staff, having taken on two part-time staff members. With Tawse-Garcia’s departure, pantry manager Angie Krueger is currently running the program with volunteers. The pantry’s board of directors has decided to maintain that for the near future.

John Felix, president of the board, said he feels good about where the pantry is headed for now, and plans to add a few board members in the coming year. “We have not yet determined any specific direction for next steps or for changing roles,” he said of the non-profit organization. “This is the time of year when people are thinking about us, which we appreciate. It’s a great time of year to think about the pantry and ways you can help.”

“Part of the appeal of working for the pantry,” says Tawse-Garcia, “was the people it serves. Its mission that is so vital. In a resort community, it’s easy to forget that people are struggling.”

For more information on how to donate items, time (as a volunteer) or money to the pantry, visit: https://gunnisoncountryfoodpantry.org

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