Sharing the bounty: With food scarcity a growing concern, groups are teaming up to help

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Food scarcity in Montezuma County is a growing concern as people struggle with low wages and an increased cost of living despite the surging U.S. economy.

It was good news in late July when the U.S. Commerce Department announced a 4.1 percent expansion in the economy during the second quarter of the year. It was the strongest growth yet during the Trump administration, surpassing the sluggish 2.2 percent growth in the first three months of 2018.

Although the current prosperity buoys confidence, a great sector of the Montezuma County population is untouched by the economic energy. Life is an economic struggle for many families.

According to the most current statistics from the Montezuma County Public Health Department, one-fifth of individual income levels in Montezuma County fell below poverty levels in 2015. Nearly 61 percent of students qualified for free or reduced school lunch programs that year. Even more startling, 54.8 percent of households received food stamps at that time, indicating that lower-income individuals tend to live together to share housing expenses.

Laurie Hall, co-owner of The Farm Bistro and director of Southwest Farm Fresh Co-op, explained that food security can provide traction in the effort to get ahead and stabilize one’s circumstances.

“Simply put, food affects everything and everything affects food. In Montezuma County, 1 out of 3 children suffers inadequate nutrition. The life-long consequences of missed meals, processed food, sugar, and artificial ingredients play out as diabetes, reduced brain function, poor performance in school, and emotional distress. The cost to our community can increase costs in health care, create an unfit workforce, and swell the crime rate,” she said. “All of this can be tied to food insecurity.”

Hope and Grace

During a recent lunch hour at Hope’s Kitchen ― one of two local church-based soup kitchens ― the atmosphere was social and lively, even familial. The line of people wound out the door onto the shaded sidewalk. A sense of modest abundance filled the large sunlit, cheerful room at the First United Methodist Church in Cortez.

Hope’s volunteer staff prepared enough home-made enchiladas, corn on the cob, and strawberries with whipped cream to feed 177 people that morning. The tally was 30 more than the average number they feed three days a week, boosting the nearly 500 per week and 20,000 meals they serve annually.

The staff was friendly and helpful, addressing guests by name, answering questions about the menu, and even kindly suggesting a person known to be diabetic might enjoy a lemon yogurt instead of a piece of cake.

A group of grandmothers read newspapers after they finished lunch. One talked happily on a cell phone while another spoke softly in Navajo with a visitor about their birthplaces on the reservation.

A guest told the Free Press that she was headed back to the recreation center after lunch to work on her garden. “I won a vegetable plot there when Good Samaritan [Center] held a lottery to have a community garden this year,” she said, describing how the vegetables are thriving, but also how the bugs have an enormous appetite for the carrot tops.

A group of young men talked softly at another table. Large, heavy backpacks stuffed with their belongings rested on the floor beside their chairs. A father helped his 3-year-old child into a high chair. He and a couple talked about their recent landscaping jobs and how glad they are that he has the lunch hour off from his job.

After the meal everyone pitched in to clean up.

Hope’s Kitchen began in 2002, when the homeless population in Cortez amounted to a handful of people. The need for food assistance has grown over the years and markedly increased in the past year, said Pastor Jean Schwien.

“Housing and food costs continue to rise as Cortez enjoys growing popularity with retirees and people relocating because of the rural lifestyle,” she said. “But wages for the people we serve, our people, do not correspond to the gentrification that comes with prosperity. The economic inequality, the gap keeps widening.”

Since 2013, the share of U.S. wealth owned by the top 1 percent of the population increased by nearly three percentage points.

Wealth owned by the bottom 90 percent of the people fell over the same period, said economist Edward Wolff in 2017. “That gap,” he concluded, “between the ultra-wealthy and everyone else, has only become wider in the past several decades, higher than it has ever been since 1962.”

Pastor Schwien said the current economy is beneficial on the whole, but is more advantageous for  CEOs, shareholders and professionals.

“Workers are suffering with low incomes, job losses, and strenuous working-parent schedules just to make ends meet,” Schwien said.  “Many rely on social safety-net programs to help them and their children simply survive. Income disparity is now a world-wide phenomenon, but we see it first-hand every day here at Hope’s Kitchen and in the park across the street.”

People come for lunch because they are chronically unemployed or homeless, are on a fixed income, or work a low-wage job. They bring their children in the summer when the school lunch program is not available. But, added Schwien, many come because they are lonely. “Almost all our guests enjoy eating together.”

She said stereotypes about their clientele need to be discarded. “Our lunch guests are diverse, experienced, and talented in many ways. They find themselves in a circumstance that may be a result of job loss, health issues, cost of medicines, aging issues, emotional and physical disabilities I want it to be perfectly clear that all of those are good reasons to ask for help. We turn no one away.”

Hope’s Kitchen director Pat Downey described the lunchtime clientele as a subculture. Most of the guests know each other.

“We serve on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Grace’s Kitchen at St.  Barnabas Episcopal Church in Cortez serves people on Tuesday and Thursday and puts out 200 brown-bag lunches on Saturday. Most people know where to go, they know the locations, times and where the food is the freshest. For many it’s the only meal they have each day. By utilizing both resources people are able to have a hot meal six days a week. “

Cupboards are not bare

Grants and contributions stock Hope’s larders, pantries and coolers in the professional kitchen. The oven they have used for 16 years is no longer large enough for the volume of roasting and baking they will do in colder months. It’s being replaced by the congregation this summer.

Metal shelving and a large walk-in cooler hold fresh food and overstock contributed from Safeway, City Market, Walmart, Care and Share, the Good Samaritan Center, and the Community Gardens at the Rec Center. Local ranchers, farmers and gardeners also stop in to contribute food from their harvests.

Likewise, said Downey, Hope’s Kitchen passes along its surplus to Grace’s and the Bridge Emergency Shelter and sometimes has enough to offer extra food for a picnic in the park and meals later in the day.

“But at the end of the week, we also look for ways to extend the community benefit,” said Downey. “Dry bread crumbs go to the ducks in the park. We offer meat scraps to dogs, and produce, like corn or squash, to rabbits and chickens. Nothing goes to waste. Everything is recycled,” he said, pointing to boxes filled with the week’s supply of washed aluminum cans.

Schwien said Downey is an expert at public relations and running the kitchen.

Downey’s story is common in soup kitchens. “I was in line a few years ago, coming because I needed help with food. Soon I was volunteering in the kitchen. Now, I let people know that doing good work for others brings value and good things to your own life. It is a wonderful career for me and I’m proud of our teamwork, really glad we can help as many people as we do.”

While Hope’s Kitchen receives grants from the City of Cortez, the Ballantine Family, Anschutz Foundation and the Daniels Fund, the majority of the funding comes from the church congregation.

Support spokes

Many local organizations have been working independently to increase food security in Montezuma County. Thanks to a broad-based effort by TeamUp, a project of United Way, these groups are now collaborating as the Montezuma Food Coalition to effectively reach more people.

The group is renovating a spacious pink stucco building on the southeast corner of North Beech and North Streets. The group has not officially named the location, but they think of the building as a hub and their nearly 15 organizations as spokes.

“We’re building the structural connection in one place between organizations that share the same goal, to create health in the community,” said Hall.

One of the organizations is the Piñon Project. Every weekday, their summer lunch  program feeds 50 kids in Montezuma Park. The Southwest Farm Fresh Co-op connects with the Piñon Project through the Montezuma Food Coalition building.

The Good Samaritan Center breakfast program is another spoke of the hub, feeding kids who don’t have breakfast.

Hall said the group vision includes projects that reach out to people who don’t feel confident handling fresh food, because they haven’t learned the skills. ‟Today many people have been raised without cooking skills, relying mostly on packaged prepared food or fast food. We hope to change that with programs that provide access for people to learn what to do with fresh food – how to safely handle, store, prepare, maybe even grow their own food,” she said.

As you sow, so shall you reap

The newly developed Cortez Rec Center Community Garden delivered a bountiful harvest to the Good Samaritan Center this summer while also supporting an earnest group of novice gardeners.

The successful first-year rec-center demonstration plot was amplified when the city approved expanding the project at the site. Empire Electric helped with a small grant, too, while Kinder Morgan recently provided a pergola to shade the growing number of people tending their plots.

Fences and grading of the land to the south of the smaller demonstration garden paved the way for 10 family beds. The families that won the use of the community gardens through a lottery are now reaping the benefits.

Produce from the original demonstration plot continues to be delivered to the Good Samaritan Food Pantry. By late July, the demonstration garden had harvested and delivered 53 pounds of vegetables for families in need of food assistance in Cortez ― radishes, spinach, lettuce, pac choy, turnips, peas, beets, zucchini and broccoli; cilantro, dill, and garlic scapes.

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Food scarcity is rapidly becoming a emergency issue in the United States. But Hall is hopeful that the vision of the organizations at the pink warehouse in Cortez will stave off the deepening crisis.

‟Imagine the bounty of local farms, ranches, and backyard gardens flowing into the warehouse to feed our community! A farmers market, a commercial kitchen, space for events and classes, art and music, a juice and coffee bar, and a food and farming information center that offers something for everyone!”

She admits it’s an over-the-top vision, but is confident it will come true. ‟Good food has the power to heal, nurture, and empower positive change. The collaboration is real. Local organizations and the producers share the common mission to reduce food insecurity in our county. Our work will improve the quality of life for everyone, including the people most in need.”

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From August 2018.