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Fighting The Stigma Of Hunger In Central Idaho

Tom Michael
Boise State Public Radio

People tend to think about the hungry during the holiday season, when organizations participate in canned food drives. In the Wood River valley, though, they want to change people’s perceptions about when to think about the hungry and how to think about their food.

On a sunny afternoon in the town of Bellevue, Brooke McKenna looks over her computer out into a waiting room of about a dozen people. She’s the Director of Operations here at the Hunger Coalition.

“OK, you’re number 37. Thanks.”

When clients walk in, she takes their card, enters them into her computer and assigns them a number. When the number is called, they get to push a shopping cart down through an aisle of shelves stocked with food. This is a “distribution” and it happens three days a week.

“Today is going generally pretty well," she says. "It’s about 15 to 30 minutes wait time on average. We try to go as quickly as possible, but you can see the volunteers take them through one-at-time, so there’s just a little bit of a slow process."

A young woman and her child walk through, filling their cart, as Volunteer Eleanor Ward guides them.

Credit Tom Michael / Boise State Public Radio
Boise State Public Radio
Ryan Weninger and Kristin McMahon prepare for a food distribution at the Hunger Coalition in the Wood River Valley.

“And we have all this soup. You can take eight cans. You can get chicken noodle and tomato. You can get eight cans of whichever you want."

The woman throws the cans in her cart and moves along; she has been through this line before.

"Canned beans or dry beans?" asks Ward. "And either a loaf of bread or tortillas. At the end here, we have diapers, toothbrushes, soap or deodorant."

This scene plays out in food pantries across the country. But it seems surprising here, near Sun Valley, where you can find multi-million-dollar homes and a famous 82-year-old ski resort.

But that outside polish masks a cold hard truth. 

We are living in the eighth-most expensive county in the nation for food," says Jeanne Liston, executive director of the Hunger Coalition.

Service industry wages are often low and not reliable year-round. Plus, there are limited housing options. In fact, 0.3 percent of housing here was built since 2010. And much of it is out-of-reach, says Liston.

“Affordable housing is a huge, a huge issue here. I would say we have an affordable housing crisis in our community.”

Blaine County, like elsewhere in Idaho, is enjoying period of low unemployment right now. Workers are in high demand.

Credit Tom Michael / Boise State Public Radio
Boise State Public Radio
The warehouse at the Hunger Coalition in Bellevue, Idaho, includes dry goods and fresh food.

“So yeah," continues Liston, "even though the economy has improved, we have actually found that we are having record numbers of people coming to us this year. We believe it’s at least in part because people move here thinking they can get a great job. But they have no idea how expensive it is to live here. And they find themselves upside down. They can’t find an affordable place to live and they end up in our lines.”

And labor is seasonal, with tourist peaks in the summer and the winter. But in 2018, even those typical calendar trends aren’t playing out here. Crowds have gathered in this waiting room all year long.

McKenna points to a graph on her computer screen: “this year, this is our purple, we haven’t really been following that at all. Normally when we would have declined in the spring, we spiked. Normally when we would have declined in the summer, our numbers remained high. So we actually have no idea what we are facing for the winter months.”

Ryan Weninger is the warehouse supervisor at the Hunger Coalition. He explains most of their food, surprisingly, is not donated but purchased. And at a discount.

"So a nice thing, we work with a lot of the local groceries," he says. "Both on a donation side. A lot of them love to donate to us instead of just throwing food out. But beyond that they work really closely with us on the purchase angle. About 80% of our total food output is purchased. And that can put a strain on us financially speaking."

Credit Tom Michael / Boise State Public Radio
Boise State Public Radio
Jeanne Liston and Kristin McMahon of the Hunger Coalition in front of the fresh produce shelves at their facility in the Wood River Valley.

And their pantry isn't just filled with canned goods, like you might find in other communities across the country. Weninger describes their commitment to offering fresh food.

"So, this is our walk-in fridge," he says, using the lever to open the large metal door. "This is where we store most of our produce, whether its donated or comes from our farm,"

He points across the room. "Over there, we have our freezer. That’s where we store most our proteins. And we’re one of the unique food pantry set ups that does offer that, which is really cool, I think."

It’s not just fresh produce in there, but fresh meat.

“Actually our freezer is stocked with ground elk right now, thanks to some of the local hunters who donate some of their kill," says Kristin McMahon, who handles communications.

She says their clientele can’t be characterized as those living in extreme poverty. The Coalition serves many lower middle-income families, from what she calls the ALICE population: Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. She says that 35 percent of the county’s population is either considered food insecure or one crisis away from that status.

The Hunger Coalition, which started as an all-volunteer organization, is celebrating 15 years. And Jeanne Liston, who joined as their first paid employee in 2007, is still surprised by the broad nature of food insecurity.

“I think that people would be shocked to know the wide variety of families that come through our doors," she says. "And we’re always surprised as staff about how many people we might actually know. And I think the community in general would be really surprised to see some of their neighbors and their friends and you know, we all fall on hard times.”

And the negative stigma of asking for a grocery cart of free food is something they battle every day. So they’ve changed their approach. Liston put out a survey in 2015.

"Forty-six percent of the people responded to a survey that we sent out that no matter how bad it got they would never seek emergency food assistance," she says. "But they would be willing to work or volunteer in exchange for food."

It was like a lightbulb went off. They weren't reaching all the people that needed them. Volunteers would work in the garden outside or at Bloom Community Farm in Hailey, in exchange for some of the harvest. In 2017 they were expecting a modest launch.

Credit Tom Michael / Boise State Public Radio
Boise State Public Radio
Ryan Weninger at the walk-in cooler at the Hunger Coalition in Bellevue, Idaho.

"Last year was our first year with the Volunteer for Veggies program. And we were hoping to get 25 people out on the farm volunteering. And we ended up with 229."

So they started to chip away at the stigma in other places. Their big orange truck that goes around town doesn’t say “hunger” or “food bank” anywhere on it. It is stocked with fresh food and shelves of books. Plus, the way they wanted the public to see their clients has totally changed, says McMahon.

“We also worked behind the scenes to evolve our brand and our message. So not so much using the demoralizing language of people 'in need' or 'the hungry.' But more talking about people who are faced with adversity and having to make these kind of heroic journeys in order to just put food on the table and to make it through the day-to-day. And that’s really impressive. And those are some of the strongest people you might encounter."

Plus, they are also some of the youngest. Over the past five years, 30 percent of Blaine County households included children. "So last year," Liston explains, "we provided food to 1-in-5 people in our community and over half of them were children."

Liston knows public schools help with school breakfast and lunch, at least during the school year. “I know a lot of people think, 'Oh, summer is fun-in-the-sun for the kids.' But it can be very stressful if you don’t know where your next meal is coming from. You have parents that are out, working really hard to provide an income. You’re one of these latch-key kids who relied on the free and reduced meals during the school year. How do you get that nourishment during the summer months?”

In Blaine County, an estimated 73 percent of households with children receive subsidies from the federal program SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. And teenagers are an important component of their volunteer farm, helping to instill a sense of value and pride as they pass into adulthood.

According to Feeding America, there are higher rates of food insecurity elsewhere in Idaho, across the northern counties of the panhandle. But the average meal cost in Blaine County is still the state’s highest. And even in this era of cheaper and cheaper food, there is a commitment here not to sacrifice nutrition for calories. And not to sacrifice dignity just to fulfill a need.

Find Tom Michael on Twitter @Tom2Michael

Copyright 2018 Boise State Public Radio

I'm the GM here, meaning I'm responsible for our management and leadership. My most recent focus is on digital transformation, long-term financial stability and a more inclusive workplace. When I want a break from the news, I enjoy running in the Boise foothills.

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