Hunger in Colorado's Historic San Luis Valley Fueled By Geography and Economics

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In the San Luis Valley, the battle against hunger is fought on two fronts: Access and affordability.

In a geography the size of Massachusetts but called home by only roughly 46,000 residents, the distance between two inhabited points can often thwart the sorts of amenities found in more populace areas. Some towns lack grocery stores and gas stations. Some areas, such as “the Flats” that populate some parts of the six-county area are simply sparse collections of houses. The likelihood that fresh fruits and vegetables are less than a 50-mile car ride away are low.

This geographic reality also contributes to the affordability challenges. The San Luis Valley has long been one of the most economically challenged areas in Colorado. Employment options there are typically limited and often sporadic or seasonal. Roughly 20 percent of the population, including nearly 30 percent of the valley’s children, live in poverty.

That’s why the work of the La Puente’s Food Bank Network of the San Luis Valley, which runs 14 and soon to be 15 locations, is critical. Last year, the food bank network fed 12,312 men, women and children. Outside of one full-time employee, the organization is entirely staffed by volunteers. These nearly 60 volunteers staff the free pantries, donate their time and transportation to make weekly runs to keep the pantries stocked and deliver boxes personally to their neighbors who lack transportation or have other issues that make it difficult for them to visit the food banks. National networks like Feed America and state organizations like Care and Share help the multiple foodbanks in the network stay stocked with donations from the few larger grocery stores in the region.

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“It’s just amazing to watch. This is truly the community caring for itself and volunteering to make sure that no neighbor goes without. People take personal transportation and a support network for granted, but not here. Here they build it and maintain it themselves,” said Lyndsey Williams, the food bank network’s director.

A good illustration of this reality at work can be found in tiny Moffat. There the town’s mayor, Patricia Reigel, is also the volunteer that stocks and runs the food bank location. A life-long resident of the valley, she estimates that roughly half of the town’s 116 residents use the pantry to either fill the gaps in their access or simply keep their families fed.

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“We work hard to make sure that no one is going hungry in our town,” she said. “That might not sound difficult to some. But when you need to travel at least 20 miles to get food of any kind, it’s tough.”

Reigel describes a network of individual gardeners who share their spring, summer and fall harvests with the community and her own organization of trips to Alamosa to resupply the pantry she runs as well as local hunters offering extra fresh meat and local chicken farmers supplying fresh eggs. “It’s a real community effort. And many who are giving don’t have a lot extra themselves,” she said.

The idea of food deserts isn’t new. People working on hunger issues have long understood that access to food, and fresh, healthy food, is directly correlated not just with hunger a community is experiencing, but also with poverty in general.

No single solution will work for the San Luis Valley. For the La Puente effort, an array of resources are deployed. Individuals like Matt Little hand deliver food boxes and firewood to residents living on “the Flats”, isolated homesteads where employment is scarce and personal transportation is hard to come by. A large network of individual food banks strategically located across the half dozen counties also helps fill in gaps. And finally, a central location in Alamosa – where the largest array of larger grocery stores that are able to donate produce and other food staples – rounds out the effort.

“Access to food, and fresh, healthy food is an issue here,” Williams said. “But if people can’t pay for the food they have access to, then just building access won’t be enough to really change things. From where I sit, we need both.”