From left: Share Our Strength State Director Summer Gathercole, Colorado No Kid Hungry Campaign Manager Dinah Frey and Office of Community Partnerships Director Karla Maracinni visited Alamosa on Friday.
Courier staff writer
ALAMOSA — Kids are hungry, but that could change if the Valley keeps up the good work and Denver keeps up its networking.
Representatives from the Colorado No Kid Hungry Campaign shared its mission, its resources and enabled a community conversation about getting food in children’s bellies on Friday at Trinidad State Junior College. Above all, they praised the Valley’s ongoing efforts to help one another.
“I am most impressed on how well you work together,” said campaign partner Share Our Strength State Director Summer Gathercole. “There is a sense of true community.”
This sense, she explained, is a driving force to meet Gov. John Hickenlooper’s executive order to end childhood hunger in the state by 2015 using a comprehensive five-year plan. The plan consists of 10 goals to expand access to healthy food where children live, learn and play, which include many efforts already realized in the Valley today.
For example, Alamosa alone offers community gardens, a farmers' market that accepts food assistance programs, Cooking Matters courses, the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, a food bank network and the Integrated Education Nutrition Program. Most of these programs reach each corner of the Valley in addition to numerous school breakfast and lunch programs serving mostly a severe and reduced meal population throughout the year and United Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
The representatives could only offer ways to make the system stronger through improving visibility and supplying resources.
“We work with out partners to ensure they have the resources that they need,” said Colorado No Kid Hungry Campaign Manager Dinah Frey. “We can connect you with people across the state that have great ideas.”
The campaign is a carryover from Gov. Bill Ritter’s days, one Hickenkooper supported with little persuasion, said the Gov.’s Office of Community Partnerships Director Karla Maracinni. In fact, it was critical, and brought attention to flaws in the system that could be addressed to improve access to nutritious foods.
“As a government agency, we have a lot to learn from you,” she said. “The best way to talk about these issues is together.”
The issues are lengthy, but connected. The campaign is asking for people to understand they have a right to food, have access to it and can incorporate healthy eating habits into their lives that will result in a more secure future.
The campaign’s latest data boasts a number of accomplishments in 2011 including: increased summer meals, expanded breakfast programs, increases in state and federal nutrition program participants and education programs, statewide policy changes and more access to food distribution and earned income tax credits. The accomplishments are being looked at nationwide because Colorado is considered a “proof of concept” state along with Maryland and Arkansas.
“I truly believe we can end hunger in Colorado because it is unacceptable in our society,” Maracinni said. “Colorado is very well positioned to meet the goals.”
Not only hunger eradication goals, but education and overall healthcare goals.
“We can’t deal with one without dealing with the other,” Maracinni said. “We need to make this something that doesn’t go away when the fanfare dies down.”
Saguache County Save the Children Coordinator Natasha Mills-McKim agreed, and stressed the point.
“This is a now need,” she said. “When you are hungry, you are not worried about taking your psychoactive drugs.”
In addition to helping the hungry, the campaign also sheds light on the American farmers who are able to supplement their income.
“It truly strengths the economy and US agriculture,” said USDA Food and Nutrition Executive Assistant Bart Bushman, who explained every $1 issued through the SNAP program pays back double to the producer. “There’s a reason the programs are under the department of agriculture, and you’re not just helping someone out that doesn’t want to work. We need to stand up to that stigma.”
According to the data, Colorado SNAP participants only seek services for an average of 10 months, and over 50 percent of enrollees are children.
In the Valley, local food sources like grocery stores are getting people on assistance programs the food they need.
“Our grocery stores are good about helping people who need help,” said Valley-Wide Health Systems WIC Director Katy Baer. “But WIC can’t use the farmer’s market, and that is very frustrating.”
The San Luis Valley Local Foods Coalition, (SLVLFC), however, provides WIC enrollees with vouchers worth up to $15 when they can.
“It’s really hard to get funding,” Baer said. “But it is our own little homegrown WIC program.”
Food Bank Network of the San Luis Valley Director Mel Huss asked the representatives to continue to improve food bank access to healthy foods.
“It is a barrier to not have full faith in what is being offered,” Huss said. “Forty percent of the food we put out goes to children. It is of utmost importance.”
Additional topics discussed included assuring people have access to food regardless of immigration status or criminal background, mobile SNAP services and local collaborations between agencies like the Alamosa Community Garden and the Boys and Girls Club.
“There are already so many assets here,” Gathercole said. “We have only scratched the surface.”