In the San Luis Valley of Colorado, the food pantry has moved beyond providing emergency assistance to serving as a reliable, routine way to supplement the diets of low-income families. Service-worker Rachel Woolworth introduces us to some of the regulars -- veterans, the disabled, parents and senior citizens.
Nestled between two mountain ranges in south central Colorado lays the San Luis Valley, an agriculturally dependent region as starkly beautiful as it is impoverished. The poverty rate in the San Luis Valley hovers around 25 percent, almost double the state’s average.
The Food Bank Network of the San Luis Valley, where I’ve worked as an Americorps volunteer since August, serves one in four of Valley residents (about 13,000 people) through its confederation of thirteen food pantries.
Food insecurity in the Valley is a consequence of the cycle of poverty here: seasonal employment and unemployment, lack of transportation resources, limited care for senior citizens, disabled citizens, and veterans, lack of affordable housing, a high rate of addiction, a harsh climate, and so much more. Additionally, many Valley residents live in food deserts — forced to travel over ten or twenty miles to reach the nearest full grocery store.
Their mission is to meet immediate needs and to empower people to live independently with dignity by providing emergency food packages to families and individuals throughout the San Luis Valley. That's consistent with those of countless other food pantries and the prevailing notion that food assistance programs across the nation are “emergency” services. While this might have been the case 20 years ago when the Food Bank Network opened its doors, it is no longer so. Working here day in and day out, this is not what I see.
Instead, I see Valley residents stuck in cyclical poverty, stopping in each week (often on the same day, at the same time) to collect from the “weekly system” (predominately non-perishable food like bread and produce) and six months out of the year for our “monthly system” (canned goods, eggs, meat etc.) in an attempt to put consistent meals on the table.
Rather than showing up in crisis mode, with starving mouths to feed, most of our clients seek reliable, supplementary help. When the system fails clients, the Food Bank Network is a resource they can fall back on.
Indeed, the majority of clients, most of whom are senior citizens, disabled, and/or providing for children, calculate the Food Bank’s services into their financial planning and weekly routine. The Food Bank is an enduring and integral presence in clients’ lives, but only one piece of the tattered puzzle of how to get by as a low-income resident of rural America.
To understand this further, it is important to understand our clientele.
Rich Smith is a 67 year-old Vietnam War veteran who has been first in line every Tuesday morning since I started working at the Food Bank Network nearly eight months now. For Rich, picking up groceries at the Food Bank helps supplement his fixed Social Security income, provides a place of social interaction, and offers the consistency of routine.
Rich belongs to one of the most noticeable demographic groups we serve at the Food Bank Network — senior citizens. Data collected for a Community Services Block Grant (CSBG) from October 2014 through January 2015 tells us that nearly half of the households served by the Food Bank Network have a person older than 55 and 20% of households receive Social Security benefits.
These figures are consistent with Feeding America’s research, suggesting that seniors are the most consistent clients for their national network of food banks and that one in 12 seniors in the United States are food insecure.
Mark and Joan Cook are both mentally disabled. They work together to navigate the Food Bank with increasing ease each week. helping them become more self-sufficient. The Food Bank eases the hardship of surviving on a monthly Supplemental Security Income (SSI) stipend.
It is also extremely common for the Food Bank to serve disabled community members (these clients are also often seniors). Throughout the Food Bank’s CSBG intake, 60% of our households self-identified as having a disabled person and nearly a quarter receive monthly SSI benefits. Because many disabled clients can’t work and it is nearly impossible to support oneself, let alone a family, on $733 a month, the Food Bank is vital.
Maria Hernandez is one of the few clients who heads straight to the produce, oohing and awing in excitement over the slightly browning fruits and vegetables. She’s game for anything from the meat fridge too: chicken livers, tripe, chitlins, beef cheek — she knows how to cook it all. Maria is a mother of four trying to survive on her husband’s modest income and their benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
Maria represents another large demographic of our clientele — parents or caretakers working to provide their family with a balanced nutritional intake. Between limited job opportunities in the Valley, seasonal agricultural work, a dwindling federal SNAP budget (41% of Food Bank clients receive SNAP), and other pressures, the food bank becomes a consistent crutch for households attempting to keep adults and children healthy.
There are occasions, particularly throughout harvest season when thousands of migrant workers pass through the Valley, when the Food Bank only sees a client once, but they are the exception.
Rich, Mark and Joan, and Maria are representative of our clientele, a vibrant group who combine their income, SNAP, and the Food Bank in order to stay satiated and healthy. One of the three isn’t enough. And this isn’t just a quantitatively based conclusion. Every day people tell me, they don’t know what they would do without us and that every little bit helps.
The Food Bank Network is not going to end hunger in the Valley, but I does provide a supplemental safety net for low-income households who can’t get by on a government stipend or a seasonal job alone.
Until the cycle of poverty is eradicated in the Valley the Food Bank Network will continue to be a systematic part of residents’ lives. Unfortunately, since this hardship isn’t going away anytime soon, the importance of food pantries in the Valley and across the U.S. will persist – easing the burden of poverty and hunger for all.