FEATURE: Hushed Hunger

By on February 16, 2016

How many people are silently suffering in the valley?

Michael Ratliff inspects fresh fruit he’ll use to make free breakfast at the Good Samaritan Mission. (Photo: jessica l. flammang)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – After paying rent and his monthly bills, Pat*, a 10-year resident, found himself using food stamps and shopping the aisles of the Jackson Food Cupboard last fall. Hungry, he gratefully filled his bags with fresh dairy, produce and meats to get through the shoulder season. Pat had used food assistance once before, five years ago. During summer and winter, his seasonal employer supplies a shift meal, which he largely depends on, but during shoulder seasons without a regular income, unemployment check or steady job, he again found himself submitting his bank statements in exchange for a referral for free food. Pat says he has known many people who resorted to dumpster diving at Jackson Whole Grocer and Lucky’s before the grocery stores started donating their food to Hole Food Rescue and the food bank.

According to the 2015 Teton County Public Health Needs Assessment, food insecuirty is one of the top three risk factors threatening the health of Teton County residents. It is the quiet reality for people like Annabelle*, who drives to the back of the Good Samaritan Mission to pick up free food three times a month. Embarrassed that others might see her with her children in tow, she relies on text messages sent from Michael Ratliff, food service manager at GSM, to learn when new food shipments come in from local nonprofits.

Ratliff noted that even people making a decent wage are now “forced to choose between paying rent or paying for food.” Annabelle agreed, admitting that it is nearly impossible to afford the dairy and produce she needs to feed her family.

Stigma fuels hunger

An increasing number of people cannot afford to feed their families nutritious, healthy food. “We are still just discovering how big the need really is,” said Jeske Grave, associate director of Hole Food Rescue. With Ali Dunford, founder and executive director, and a team of 75 volunteers, HFR distributes food to 18 partner organizations including the Teton County School District; Senior Center; Community Safety Network; Latino Resource Center; Teton Literacy Center; Teton Youth & Family Services (Van Vleck and Red Top); Jackson Cupboard and the Good Samaritan Mission.

Since June 2013, HFR has prevented 400,000 pounds of food waste from traveling to the Bonneville County landfill, more than 100 miles away from Teton County. They currently divert 5,000 pounds of surplus food per week, which equals about 700 pounds per day.

Nationwide, 14 percent of the population, or 800 million people, are labeled “food insecure,” a phenomenon defined by the Oxford Dictionaries as “being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food.” This equates to one in six Americans. In Teton County, 13.5 percent, or 3,000 residents, were identified as food insecure, according to Teton County Public Health Department in 2013.

Sadly, a stigma surrounds food assistance, and it can be “humiliating to ask for help,” as Gillian Chapman, superintendent of Teton County School District No. 1 cited in an interview with The Planet in January. HFR alone serves around 1,000 individuals weekly, but Grave laments that, “There are people out there we are not reaching … we are trying to get to them.”

Michael Ratliff inspects fresh fruit he’ll use to make free breakfast at the Good Samaritan Mission. (Photo: jessica l. flammang)

Michael Ratliff inspects fresh fruit he’ll use to make free breakfast at the Good Samaritan Mission. (Photo: Jessica L. Flammang)

In the Teton County School District, 619 kids are currently on free or cost-reduced meals, out of 2,700 total students, (not including Kelly or Moran). That’s about a quarter of local kids struggling with food insecurity. But while 24 percent of the district’s students are on free and cost-reduced breakfast or lunch programs, it’s safe to assume hunger is plaguing even more local families who have not asked for help, explained Chapman during the 22 in 21 conference in January.

The cost to feed one TCSD high school student 10 meals per week is $27.50; for elementary students, it is less than $20 per week, while the cost for price-reduced meals is $3.50 per week. The price to offer students ‘free meal seconds’ three days a week is $5.25. Despite the seemingly low price tag, more than a quarter of students have negative meal balances.

Annabelle, born and raised in Jackson, admits that it is embarrassing to ask for help. “I try to bring my groceries into my house fast so my neighbors don’t see that my groceries look different than theirs,” she said. Raising several young children, and struggling to pay off debts, she admitted, “You don’t want anyone to know that you are struggling.” But she says she doesn’t know how she would survive without the assistance.

According to the Feeding America program—the leading nationwide network of food banks serving 46.5 million needy Americans per year—in 2014, “households with children reported food insecurity at a significantly higher rate than those without children: 19 percent compared to 12 percent.”

Asking for help

Every Tuesday GSM’s Ratliff, along with Georgia Lougori, founder of the Totes of Hope program, and Louis Burnett, a GSM resident, prepare and deliver 40 bags of food to the Learning Center on Tuesdays. The bags include boxed dinners, shelf-stable milk, cereal, tuna, pasta, canned vegetables and fresh fruit. They go to children who teachers have identified as coming from financially stressed families. Ratliff said that people making $12 to 14 an hour, and paying $1,500 in rent, have nothing left for food. “Even with food stamps,” which amount to about $180-$200 per month, he said, “there is no way they can make it.”

In 2015 the Jackson Cupboard served a total of 5,380 individuals. After three visits, clients need a referral from one of the human service agencies, such as CRC, LRC, doctor’s offices, Children’s Learning Center, Public Health, Community Counseling Center, or local churches. They can also apply through the Department of Family Service’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). After 10 to 16 visits, they are reevaluated (in case they need other kinds of assistance as well, according to the Community Resource Center).

The folks who come forward and benefit from this assistance are big believers, too. “It is easy to get a referral,” Pat said. “You just make an appointment and bring in your bank statements. Many groups of people need this assistance.” Annabelle encouraged people to come to the Mission for dinners and food boxes. “They smile and make you feel taken care of. They treat you like family, and you don’t need a referral.”

The Jackson Cupboard has been serving a vast cross-section of the valley’s growing community for more than 15 years. Donations are made through various food drives, private donations and Old Bill’s Fun Run. A member of the Feeding America program, the Cupboard purchases food at a deep discount through the Food Bank of the Rockies. Local efforts help stock the Cupboard too. Jackson Hole Middle School recently collected and donated 2,000 pounds of food.

Cathy Poindexter (left), and Amy Brooks observe a densely populated fridge at the Jackson Cupboard. The nonprofit served more than 5,000 people last year. (Photo: jessica l. flammang)

Cathy Poindexter (left), and Amy Brooks observe a densely populated fridge at the Jackson Cupboard. The nonprofit served more than 5,000 people last year. (Photo: Jessica L. Flammang)

Consistent access to fresh dairy, canned goods and meats, fresh produce, diapers and more is available at the Cupboard, and its new “Free Food Friday” program offers perishable food surplus for free to anyone. Cathy Poindexter, a board member, explained, “People were having a hard time understanding the concept—they didn’t want to take from people in need.” So it was necessary to explain that they had already reached the people in need. “This is the last step before it goes to the landfill,” Poindexter said. Although the demand is high, so is the surplus food; the Cupboard was pouring gallons of milk down the drain before Free Food Fridays, while folks like Annabelle lament, “It is hard to afford dairy and produce. Milk and eggs are what we need most.”

Poindexter and Amy Brooks, case manager for CRC and board member of the Jackson Cupboard, encourage all people who need assistance to come in. “We are missing a population of people who really could use support,” Brooks said.

Ratliff echoed this notion and has made steps to try to accommodate more of these folks. He said there are no set hours at the Mission, and food boxes are often supplied to needy families during hours the Jackson Cupboard is closed. This year he distributed 40,000 pounds in food boxes.

“We are grateful for the food boxes,” said a mother at the GSM on a recent Sunday. “We cook rice every day, and it is so nice to have milk for the kids.”

GSM’s entire food cooler turns over two to three times per week, while the food shelves turn over every week. The freezer—packed with fish, hot dogs, sausage, bacon, all frozen according to proper date—turns over every month. But unlike other assistance programs, clients who use GSM are not required to submit their address. “It isn’t important to us,” Ratliff said.  “A lot of people live in their car or motorhome. How can someone give you an address when it’s a 1978 Ford Taurus?”

Carlos Ayala, a Puerto Rican native who arrived a few months ago from Orlando, Florida, lives at the Mission. In exchange for a bed and food, he cooks there on Fridays and Saturdays, serving 30 to 35 people at a time. During the weekends, he cleans. On Sunday, Ratliff’s only night off from cooking, the dinner bell rang and donated Domino’s pizza and salad arrived. Ayala explained in Spanish that in order to reside at the Mission, all residents must work, but that is not enough for him to afford food. He says he is having trouble finding a job with good pay because he does not speak English.

The clientele at the Cupboard is sundry. “Often times folks are one accident or one medical issue away from needing to use the food cupboard,” CRC’s Brooks said. “We have people who have lived in Jackson for 30 to 40 years who have had to use it after a medical crisis.” Some people just need a loaf of bread, a dozen eggs and a gallon of milk to get through the week while they wait for their paycheck, she noted.

Unlike most food banks in the state, the Jackson Cupboard allows people to do their own shopping. “I got surplus food that Whole Grocer gave away—goat cheese, Kombucha and crème fraiche, frozen fish and organic meats from the freezer, items I would not normally have been able to afford,” Pat said.

Individuals can leave with three bags of food and supplies in one visit, while families can leave with five. Available fresh food includes donated fresh eggs and tofu, cheese, milk, yogurt and vegetables, which mainly come from local grocery stores and Hole Food Rescue. The shelves are restocked each Monday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., and Thursday from 10 a.m. to noon.

Local people need local food

More than 40 percent of food in the U.S. finds its way to the trash and not into the mouths of people who need it most. So is there a better way to manage the seemingly endless stream of unused food?

Brent Tyc (left), and Alex Feher among the fruits of their labor, slated for the shelves at Aspens Market and soon-to-be other valley locales. (Photo: jessica l. flammang)

Brent Tyc (left), and Alex Feher among the fruits of their labor, slated for the shelves at Aspens Market and soon-to-be other valley locales. (Photo: Jessica L. Flammang)

Local sustainability projects seek to address food insecurity in unconventional ways. Alex Feher is the sustainability liaison to Aspens Market and Pearl Street Market, and farmer at Huidekoper Ranch in Wilson. Feher and his business partner, Brent Tyc, greenhouse manager and farmer, are proponents of the “triple bottom line:” food should be ecologically sustainable, economically viable and socially just. They grow two different kinds of salad mixes in their greenhouse leased by Aspens Market. One is a golden and red beet, rainbow chard mix; the other is a red Russian kale, radish, arugula, spicy and mild mustard, collard and tatsoi (Asian baby green) mix. The greenhouse has doubled in size since 2012, and they have just planted 300 tomato seeds in a germination room. “Nutritious food is the best medicine,” Feher said as he clipped a stem of red kale. His fresh-clipped greens are quickly stocked and bought at Aspens Market.

Both Feher and Tyc are dismayed by industrial food production. “Industrial agriculture has done incredibly well to produce their own food, but we are losing two millimeters of topsoil per year by industrial mechanized farming, tilling and killing the soil, not regenerating it,” Feher lamented. Composting in the greenhouse is one way they are seeking to build a new local growing model based on sustainability for the future. The idea is to have a store that sources its own food. “This is one step toward that goal while working with as many local purveyors as we can to be a hub for their local products,” Tyc explained.

Today less than two percent of the nation’s population is employed in agriculture. In 1870, this number was 70 to 80 percent. Troubled by the abundant food shipments delivered to Teton County, Feher has some ideas. “A great way that we could start breaking apart mass agricultural farming is if everyone with a backyard or access to space could grow a portion of their own food on their own plot—this would begin to transcend the supply chain,” he said.

Feher churns the red wiggler worms derived from cow and horse manure in a large galvanized steel watering trough, composting used eggs shells, organic food wastes, and soil from his greenhouse. He says they harvest six to 10 pounds of greens per week. “My hope is that we can supply as much food to the local people as possible at an affordable price,” he said. “We don’t need tractors and machines. Intensive micro farming requires hand tools and planning. The yields are pretty incredible when broken down per square foot.” Feher says he envisions the Huidekoper greenhouse model as a transferrable growing model for the community.

“What I would like to see is for local food to be cheaper than food that is shipped in. Right now, California organic greens are $3 less than local greens,” Tyc noted. In the future,  growers like Feher and Tyc want to find niches for different produce growth through what they call a “community wide growing network.”

Local growing models like Huidekoper Ranch in Wilson and Vertical Harvest in Jackson, offer promise when it comes to cutting out the middleman. Food is supplied directly to community members, straight from the farm. “The security comes from our ability to provide food that doesn’t need to be shipped,” Feher said. “We have free-flowing snowmelt all summer long, and we can use the canopy cover formed by the leaves of the closely planted vegetables to shade the soil.”

Nona Yehia, Vertical Harvest’s managing partner, agreed. “Local food is an investment in our future,” she said. “These efforts are critical to the sustainable development of a community; local food systems generally mean less energy, emissions and food miles associated with our food.”

Vertical Harvest is currently under its final stage of construction and testing its operating systems. The organization’s intention is not to compete with local farmers, but rather to replace food that’s being trucked in from other states. “This is particularly important in our winter season where very little local produce is being grown,” Yehia said. “Produce that is purchased in the supermarket often has been in transit or cold-stored for days or weeks. The produce that we grow will be delivered to the public within a day of harvesting.” This means it will be sold at the peak of its nutritional value and taste.

With a goal to begin distributing at the beginning of March, Vertical Harvest plans to grow approximately 100,000 pounds of produce yearly to sell to local grocery stores including Jackson Whole Grocer, Lucky’s, Smith’s and Albertsons as well as local restaurants at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, the Grand Teton Lodge Company and those of the Fine Dining Group. Produce will also be distributed to St. John’s Hospital, and VH would like to start working with limited programs at the schools. Additionally, it will sell straight to the public at an on-site store called Market.

Pearl Street Market and Aspens Market are launching an initiative to salvage their organic waste for compost next summer, in addition to offering continued locally sourced produce sold all summer long, as well as farmers’ markets on Tuesday nights. Meanwhile, Hole Food Rescue is engaging in a similar two-year research project called ‘Just Food JH,’ to measure the edible food waste of all food retailers vis-à-vis self-administered waste audits. Two hundred of Teton County’s food retail businesses, including grocery stores, restaurants and catering companies will be asked to participate in this study.

One of many boxes of fresh produce and canned and packaged goods dontated to the Good Samaritan Mission. (Photo: jessica l. flammang)

One of many boxes of fresh produce and canned and packaged goods dontated to the Good Samaritan Mission. (Photo: Jessica L. Flammang)

While local farmers’ markets and the Jackson Hole People’s Market are becoming increasingly popular, the fact remains that most of the valley’s food is still shipped in. “Too often, I see Cisco and U.S. Foods trucks coming into Jackson on Highway 89 and unloading food for restaurants and grocery stores,” HFR’s Grave noted. “Star Valley and Teton Valley have some great local growers, but our valley has a short growing season.”

Grave says food equity is at the heart of a sustainable food system. “Supporting a family of three on minimum wage doesn’t give people a choice in what to buy—they buy what is cheapest or whatever is free,” she said. Grave also pointed out that local products aren’t accessible to everyone because of social and financial inequities, and that local production may not be enough to sustain the entire community, [in addition to the 3.5 million tourists the valley feeds annually].

Becoming educated citizens is key to the battle, Grave noted. “One of the biggest things to focus is our disconnection with food production,” she said. “Know what you are buying; by understanding where and how food is grown, you can make a conscious decision what to support. Buy less. Waste less. Be part of the solution. Try everything you can in your own household.”

Feher cites the valley’s abundantly powerful sunshine, and urges people to use more labor and out-of-the-box thinking to create the growing medium the valley needs. “We need to set up permanent cultures,” he said. “The idea of living in a place means stewarding it. That is what it means to be a community. It all comes full circle. We can live in a resilient, regenerative environment – this is not a progressive or conservative idea, it is a realistic idea.”

The real cost of food

According to a USDA Consumer Expenditure study in 2013, the lowest income bracket of people spent 36 percent of their total income on food, which calculated to $3,655.Those in the highest income bracket spent 8 percent of their earnings on food, approximately $11,000 annually.

Nationally, 26 percent of food insecure individuals are above the poverty line, and are typically ineligible for most food assistance programs, according to Feeding America’s ‘Map the Meal Gap,’ which measures food insecurity in counties across the nation annually. In Wyoming, Map the Meal Gap identified 74,470 people as food insecure in the state’s 23 counties in 2013. According to Feeding America: “Food insecurity may reflect a household’s need to make trade-offs between important basic needs, such as housing or medical bills, and purchasing nutritionally adequate foods.”

Ratliff, who rises at 4 a.m. each day to make breakfast for GSM residents and other hungry folks, says the amount of meals GSM regularly serves has risen 20 percent from last year. He says it will rise another 20 percent next year. In 2015 the Mission supplied 16,000 meals; this year, Ratliff expects to serve 20,000. “More people need food; undocumented workers and those who have no money left after paying rent. They are hungry, and that is our only requirement,” he said. All summer, GSM was at capacity. To double the capacity of food he can serve the public, GSM will install a new vent hood and a double convection oven, donated by The Community Foundation. Currently, Ratliff manages to feed people on an average 25 cents a meal per person.

Mike, a regular client at the Mission, lives in a camper, and takes a shower a couple times a week at the Mission, where he normally consumes an average of two lunches and seven dinners per week. He always chips in to help Ratliff, often sweeping and helping clean up. “The food is good here,” he said as he took a towel and a washcloth for his shower.

Tim lives and works at GSM. “I haven’t lost any weight, and I haven’t gained any,” he said. “We eat nutritious food, and we include plenty of protein because we have people who are nutritionally challenged.”

A hot breakfast is served Monday through Friday from 7 to 8 a.m., and a continental breakfast is served on the weekends. Dinner is at 5:30, and lunch is served on weekends since the Catholic Church offers meals Monday through Friday. “We have people who utilize the Mission every day,” said Ratliff, who happily accommodates food allergies and any dietary restrictions.

A significant amount of the Mission’s food comes from the Jackson Cupboard and HFR. Albertsons also delivers twice a week, and Food Bank of the Rockies delivers once a month. “I can’t afford to shop at the grocery store,” Ratliff said. “But I can afford to go to Ali’s and Jeske’s [HFR] and get high quality food for free, and feed it to the people here.”

‘A community should be built around food’

Zak Bagley spends a third of his monthly income on food, despite receiving a 30 percent grocery discount and free shift meals from his employer, Aspens Market. He also rolls sushi for Sudachi, delivers it to partner businesses—Pearl Street Market and Aspens Market—and even treks the leftovers to the Good Samaritan Mission. “I could not eat as healthily or support a mostly vegan diet as I do without these benefits,” he said.

Aspens Market is selling its own indoor-grown micro-greens that live just above the grocery store. (Photo: jessica l. flammang)

Aspens Market is selling its own indoor-grown micro-greens that live just above the grocery store. (Photo: Jessica L. Flammang)

Raised in Jackson, the 23-year-old returned to the valley after an apprenticeship at White Buffalo Farm in Colorado, where he learned how to cultivate and distribute under a CSA model. “A community should be built around food,” he said. “Knowing where your meat and vegetables come from creates a sense of partnership.”

Bagley admitted that he had free lunches at school growing up; his family lived in a Habitat for Humanity House. They used the food bank, food stamps and the Mission. He remembers shopping at the food bank, and seeing his friends there. “I didn’t think it was different that we were shopping there. To me, it was just the way we got food.”

The Jackson Cupboard, Free Food Fridays, the Good Samaritan Mission and HFR’s free food table on Gregory Lane are all great resources to find high quality, cost-free food. But it is still a matter of encouraging folks to utilize these resources. “If one doesn’t see the poverty that is in our community, then it is really easy to say it doesn’t exist. Food is the one thing we should always have,” Brooks said. “In Jackson, there is no reason for anyone to be hungry. There are so many options to access food … But we are not reaching as many people as we should or could.”

Ratliff agreed. “A huge amount of people don’t know they can come here,” he said. So Ratliff has been hanging flyers for GSM’s free meals at local hotels,  where he knows many food insecure people live.

‘Community Eats,’ a local food insecurity committee, has created a food map showing the places people in need can receive food for free or at a discount, and the hours of availability. By spring, they intend for it to be posted bilingually on START buses, and to distribute bilingual trifold pamphlets in doctors’ offices and churches in the valley. “We are only doing 20 at breakfast,” Ratliff said. “We are hoping to increase that to 50 to 75. That is the most important meal. We have pancakes, eggs and bacon to offer to everyone.”

As for Pat, he is uncertain how much assistance he will need from local groups such as The Jackson Cupboard in the future. But as a seasonal worker living in a resort town with rising rent and food costs, he says he can at least find comfort in one thing. “I don’t qualify for free medical care, I don’t qualify for a lot of things, but I do qualify for free food. It was very reassuring that the community was there to back me when I needed it most.” PJH 

*Name has been changed.

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