“A tiny slice of abundance gives them a tiny piece of hope”
By Katherine Nettles
The holiday season has arrived, but for some in the Gunnison Valley that doesn’t bring a sense of ease. Preparing decadent meals is a luxury that, with rising food prices and wage stagnation, will be harder for some households this year. But local non-profit Mountain Roots Food Project is providing holiday harvest boxes to those struggling, beginning next Tuesday before Thanksgiving and again before Christmas. Mountain Roots expects to prepare and deliver approximately 400 boxes of fresh food to local households in need, and is accepting both monetary donations and helping hands as they work toward this goal. The organization is also preparing to go year-round with its regular food box delivery for the first time in its history.
Mountain Roots focuses on creating a more equitable and sustainable food system as part of its mission to create healthier connections between food, earth and community. The organization already provides free boxes of fresh, local food to about 100 households facing food insecurity, with about 15 other households on its waitlist. It is looking to double its impact this season by adding seasonal boxes of fresh, locally sourced ingredients to ensure that recipients have what they need to create special holiday meals.
Mountain Roots executive director Holly Conn explains that the food box program has been going for several years, but it has grown significantly since COVID. “We’ve been doing food relief boxes for families in need since 2015. So we’ve always had a small list of food box recipients, and we always gave them an extra boost around the holidays,” she says.
For the first five years, the number was around 25 households.
“But when the pandemic struck and our food relief numbers went into the 300s, the holiday need was heartbreaking, for our whole community. So that was the first year we did the holiday boxes,” says Conn. “We did about 100 holiday boxes that year.”
Beyond a can of pie filling
The boxes being distributed for Thanksgiving will include organic and locally grown produce such as leafy greens, potatoes, root vegetables, fruit and whole locally raised roasting chickens.
At Christmas, there will be an assortment of larger cuts of meat in addition to a salad and vegetables. The produce comes primarily from Mountain Roots’ own community farms and small family farms in the region. “It has also created a market for some of our local ranchers and farmers who are raising beef and pork and lamb. If we include a variety in the boxes, it allows them to sell a lot of their product to us even if it isn’t on a large scale,” says Conn.
This is important to the organization because while many groups offer extra food insecurity initiatives around the holidays, many cannot provide fresh, local, healthy produce and products.
Conn describes the effect of special holiday boxes on a struggling person or family. “These boxes can truly be holiday meal celebrations. They can give people that sense of joy, of celebration, the ability to gather together as a family around food and the dignity it allows. To give them a tiny slice of abundance gives them a tiny piece of hope. It does more than just nourish them for that day or that week. It gives people hope in themselves, in the world, in community. It’s difficult to measure, but we see it,” she says.
Community members can show their support for this program by making monetary donations toward the boxes, or by giving their time to help prepare and/or deliver them throughout the valley. Each box costs Mountain Roots about $50, which totals about $20,000 between the Thanksgiving and Christmas deliveries. Donations have come in from all over the Gunnison Valley, including from people making modest wages but joining together to make an impact.
“Servers have pooled their tips together. Librarians pooled their money and the library district matched it, and we ended up with funding for five boxes,” says Conn.
“A family might want to sponsor another family. Or a business, for example, can pool money and sponsor two boxes. It’s people to people.”
As of press time, $14,000 had been raised and about 20 holiday boxes were still available for those in need. “The more money we get the more we can help,” says Conn.
Aggregating and sorting all those holiday food boxes is a heavy lift for the Mountain Roots staff and volunteers. They will be packed, prepped and sorted next Monday between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m., and then volunteers will take a route for delivery Tuesday. Among the community volunteers will be the whole Titans high school basketball team from Crested Butte Community School. While the deadline for volunteer sign-up for Thanksgiving’s delivery is Thursday, November 17, more volunteers are needed for the Christmas deliveries and that sign-up opens November 19.
Mountain Roots also plans to keep up with regular food box deliveries throughout the winter. “In past years, our food relief efforts would wind down,” explains Conn, as the growing seasons ended.
“This will be the first year that we will be able to continue for all 52 weeks of the year,” she says. “We’ve been working really hard to have the capacity and the sources to be able to go year-round with food security work.”
Conn shares a surprising recent discovery Mountain Roots made when they crossed-checked their list with other food relief programs in the valley, such as the city of Gunnison’s senior meals program and the Gunnison Country Food Pantry: they realized they were serving different people, with only about 10% of overlap. They also know that many who qualify for food assistance haven’t come forward.
“We know that there is a lot of stigma around admitting that you need social support, and then going to get it. We try to drop that stigma. We know that statistically there are more people who would qualify than who we are seeing. We know there are more people out there who need it,” says Conn.
“We also have some who have graduated from the list. They say, ‘I’m good, I’m back on my feet, I want to free up a spot,’” she says. “I love that because it confirms our faith in humanity. We don’t ever see people taking advantage of this. Everyone is using it very humbly, very authentically, and in a hugely grateful way.”
Conn says that giving people grade A produce and bringing it to their door reduces the stigma as well. “Many people we serve are single parents working multiple jobs or homebound seniors who just can’t get out.
“It also gives us a chance to get to know the people in our community,” she adds. Sometimes people comment that they weren’t sure what to do with certain items in their previous box, which prompts recipe sharing. “Asking questions and offering feedback gives us a chance to develop an authentic relationship with the people we are serving and better understand where they are in life, and what other services they might benefit from.” Conn says that there is also a “missing middle,” or about 30% of the population who doesn’t qualify for assistance but who is living below the self-reliance level. That is work Mountain Roots hopes to address in the future.
For more information or to sign up for food assistance, volunteering or make a donation, visit www.mountainrootsfoodproject.org.