Americans need social safety net

Guest Commentary

The United States is one of the richest countries in the world, by many accounts the richest. Yet a significant number of Americans do not participate in this richness. Many other countries, even those much less prosperous, provide a robust support system for all their citizens. Why can’t the United States provide such support to allow its citizens to have and enjoy the basic needs of life? This big question is one that our local writing group intends to address, but for now let’s start a little closer to home. 

Gunnison Valley virtues are often mentioned in local writing. Our valley has many intrinsic qualities, including our natural beauty and our diverse population. In this series on what our group believes are some of the underpinnings of a functioning democracy, we look at what we consider to be three of its basic needs — food security, housing security and healthcare. This list encompasses fundamentally important issues. 

Here, we consider how people and organizations in our lovely valley support our population compared to national trends. We look at how our community, our local government and nonprofits collaborate to address these issues and how each of us as individuals can be part of the solution. One in three Gunnison County residents qualifies for federally available food assistance, so let’s begin by addressing food security.

America can provide enough food for everyone. Some studies indicate that as much as 40% is wasted. Feeding America, a nationwide network of more than 200 food banks that feed more than 46 million people through food pantries such as our Gunnison Country Food Pantry, soup kitchens, shelters and other community-based agencies, reports that 42 million people in America are food insecure. Why can’t our nation’s people be assured of a full and nutritious diet? Here in Gunnison County, we are addressing food security in a number of different ways.

One way we are helping to solve food security issues locally is through the Gunnison Country Food Pantry (GCFP), a nonprofit organization. One of the pantry’s tenets is, “No one in Gunnison County should go hungry.” The pantry’s goal is to help recipients stretch their food budgets so they can meet other financial needs and still have enough food to feed their families.  Recently, a pantry recipient could not have said it better: “You know, the food the pantry provides allows me to feed my family and buy gas for my car, so that I can get to work in Crested Butte,” he said.  

In pre-COVID times, the pantry served an average of 600-800 individuals or families per month. During the pandemic the pantry saw an approximate 80% increase in people seeking food assistance. Prior to the pandemic, the pantry was open Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Since the pandemic, partnering with Gunnison County Pandemic Response and Senior Transportation Center, the pantry has begun to deliver nutritious food bundles on Tuesdays and Fridays to anyone who cannot come to the pantry in person.  

The pantry also offers snack bags to families with school-age children, so that kids have nutritious, healthy snacks at home and during the school day. For children who rely on school meals during the week and need meals over the weekend, the pantry provides easy-to-prepare, kid-friendly meal kits called Gunni-Packs. Mini-pantries are also located in all schools in the Gunnison Watershed School District and make food available to children struggling with very low food security. 

Gunnison Country Food Pantry partners with local farmers and ranchers by giving them food that is no longer fit for human consumption to feed their livestock. Almost no food goes to the landfill. In return, ranchers and hunters donate USDA-processed meats. 

It has been said that some people who access GCFP services have cell phones. They wonder why recipients take free food when they appear to be able to afford these expensive phones. Nowadays, cellphones are “the poor man’s computer.” For those who can’t afford a personal computer, a cell phone provides internet connectivity, helping them to find access to food, human services, jobs and transportation. In today’s diversified society, a cellphone is a must-have component of life.

Last year, of the 1,580 households served by GCFP, while 11% were Western students, the rest were people living below the State of Colorado subsistence level criteria. These households represented 3,606 people receiving food assistance in 2020. That is 20% of the county population. Experience has taught pantry volunteers to manage access so that each person who visits has the dignity of shopping for food in a calm, welcoming atmosphere where they can take a moment to think about what food they need and want.  

The efforts of the pantry are supported through a variety of public and private sources. These include monthly shipments from a regional food bank, donations from local grocery stores, and grants from the Community Foundation of the Gunnison Valley, along with other sources and donations from the public. And let’s not forget the army of volunteers that help make this all happen. 

A number of other public and nonprofit efforts in the county address various aspects of food security. The Federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides help for those who meet the program’s requirements. The school meal program provides free or reduced cost breakfasts and lunches to make sure kids have an adequate nutritional base to foster learning. The senior meals program run through the Gunnison Senior Center provides reasonably priced hot lunches for seniors three times per week both in person and delivered for those who are homebound. The Mountain Roots Food Program helps to support our residents with various programs to provide locally grown produce, teach classes in gardening, healthy cooking, and nutrition. 

In one of the richest countries in the world no one should go hungry. Food security is a challenging problem, and it is good to see a combination of government and nonprofit efforts work to make sure the residents of Gunnison County have enough to eat. We can all play a part. If you know someone who might be food insecure, connect them to some of these services or to the Gunnison County Department of Health and Human Services at 220 N. Spruce St. in Gunnison to determine the best type of assistance for their circumstances.

(The Gunnison CountyWriting Group is a loose-knit group of county residents who have chosen to work together and write about common interests. They are Arden Anderson, Laird Cagan, Jan Carroll, Joe Dix, Laurie Gery, Marcia Landwehr and Charles Welch.)


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