One in seven people in the United States face hunger every year. However, that rate is even higher among children, with approximately one in five lacking proper access to food, according to recent figures from Feeding America, the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization.
These statistics are not lost on Gunnison’s Kevin Ferguson, who has taken it upon himself to coordinate local assistance for those who are hungry at home.
“This is a beautiful place to live — but there are poverty-stricken people in our midst that we don’t think about,” said Ferguson.
In 2015, Ferguson and his wife Nicole created what’s now known as “Gunni Packs” — a program that provides a backpack of healthy food to last through the weekend while children aren’t in school.
This last year alone, Gunni-Packs provided a total of 65 backpacks each weekend for students district-wide ranging from kindergarten through 12th grade. Through the program, Ferguson recruited friends, along with the Gunnison Country Food Pantry, to provide nutritious meals and snacks for children over weekends and extended breaks, free of charge.
The bags are available for pickup at the school on the last day before a weekend or break. Information about families who sign up for the program is kept confidential.
A fundraiser for Gunni-Packs on Oct. 14 will include face painting and other free kids games as part of the eighth annual Jamaica Night at the Fred Field Western Heritage Center in Gunnison. Additionally, 100 percent of the proceeds will go directly to covering the cost of food for children.
While Gunni-Packs has now served students in need for more than five years, there are several facets of food assistance that have grown alongside the program.
The food pantry, for example, began providing snacks to students around the same time through the district nurse's office and during the summer — with thousands of snacks offered for students who came to Señorita Rita's Rockin' Reading Route book buses. Snacks also have been distributed through the Gunnison County Library District.
Over the years in Crested Butte, elementary school Principal Sally Hensley also worked to implement a program to send food home with children for the weekend. Lake School in Gunnison also made similar efforts.
But Ferguson’s dream to provide for those in need soon stretched valley-wide with a vision of providing for the entire district. Operations for the program have consistently kept a low overhead, with all the food provided stored at Ferguson’s home.
He and friends Todd Huckabee, Spencer Winegar and Chris Bruggeman joined forces and decided to collect food and funds under a nonprofit foundation formed by Huckabee. The group then approached the food pantry and the school district to expand their partnership.
“The community really wrapped their arms around us,” said Ferguson of the efforts to combat hunger in the Gunnison Valley.
For Bruggeman, finding a way to make a living in this community can come with a unique set of challenges unlike other places.
“Everyone knows how hard it is to make it here,” said Bruggeman. “You hear of people moving away all the time because it’s so hard.”
It’s Bruggeman’s hope that even in the face of economic adversity, every child in Gunnison County can live here without going hungry.
“It just comes down to feeding kids and not wanting them to go hungry on the weekends,” said Bruggeman.
Bruggeman also pointed to those in the community who have kept a watchful eye on students as they navigate school.
Local bus driver Marvin Hamilton has offered a helping hand over the years.
According to Bruggeman, when Hamilton opens the door to let kids on his bus, he can see in their eyes if they have eaten that weekend. If they haven’t, he will then give students' names to the middle school nurse and she will distribute a pack full of food.
“A child should never go hungry,” added Ferguson.
(Kate Gienapp can be reached at 970.641.1414 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)
HOW TO DONATE
Tax-deductible donations may be sent to Psalms 82.3 Ministries. Include “Gunni-Packs” in the memo line and mail to 480 Red Tail Lane, Gunnison CO 81230.
What: Jamaica Night
When: Oct. 14, 5:30-7 p.m.
Where: Fred Field Western Heritage Center, Gunnison
What else: Tickets can be purchased at Jermaine’s or by calling Chriss Bruggeman at 970.275.4492. Tickets are $20 for adults and $10 for children.