One West Slope County is Aiming to End Child Hunger, One Fruit and Veggie at a Time

Sometimes the right people just end up in the right places and a previously insurmountable problem becomes a solvable issue. Consider these three points of individual light in Mesa County.

First, there’s Dan Sharp. He is the food and nutrition services director for Mesa County Valley School District 51. After arriving at his role at the district, he began the effort to introduce scratch cooking and salad bars to every school in the district. He accomplished this, but something nagged at him. He was looking at a district with more than 21,000 kids. About half of them qualified for free and reduced lunch. Where were they eating in the summer? A district budget that shrunk about 21 percent following the recession of the early 2000s, had left the district unable to provide much programming at its schools during the summer. No programming meant no lunches for kids that might need them during the summer months.

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The solution Sharp found was an innovative one. Enter the Western Colorado Community Foundation (WCCF) which works to identify community needs and uses evidence based practices to fill essential gaps in service in the community. Anne Wenzel, WCCF director, knew that food trucks were gaining traction as a way to bring meals directly to children who may live in more isolated communities and that the USDA’s Summer Food Service Program supported their use. In a brainstorming session with Sharp, it became clear that if kids can’t come to the food, then the food should come to the kids. The Lunch Lizard food truck program was born in 2015 at five sites and 4,000 meals. By 2017, that program had expanded to 17 sites and served 25,000 meals. During the school year, these trucks are used to provide healthy, fresh lunches for charter schools that can’t afford to install an expensive commercial kitchen.

“What do those kids do to get food during the summer? That’s 12 weeks without lunch,” he said. “At best we were covering two maybe three weeks. Where were they going? It hit me really hard and I decided to find a solution.”

Next, there’s Amanda McQuade. She’s the Community Alliance for Education and Hunger Relief Program Coordinator. Building from the infrastructure of the Colorado State University Western Colorado Research Center that traditionally grew nine acres of apples and peaches for research, McQuade, her colleagues, partner agencies and volunteers from across the community launched an effort dedicated to expanding the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables available at food banks, as well as fueling Dan Sharp’s efforts to get fresh, healthy foods to kids across the county. With help from students at Western Colorado Community College who are working on a two-year associate’s degree in sustainable agriculture, the program has grown to a year-round effort to make the most of the land available at the research facility.

“We’re excited about the farm to school aspect,” McQuade said. “Whenever we can, we bring the kids from the school to plant, then harvest and then see the fruits of their harvest served at their school. It’s really so much more than nutrition. It’s education for a lifetime.”

In 2017, the community alliance program produced more than 90,000 pounds of leafy greens, cucumbers, tomatoes, carrots and other vegetables as well as apples and peaches for the local school district as well as community and state-wide food banks.

Finally, consider Jody Valente, a program associate at the Western Colorado Community Foundation. She explains the role of a community foundation as the catalyst to identify need in the community and fill those gaps. When Sharp talked to the foundation about addressing childhood hunger, the entities decided to pilot the Lunch Lizard Summer Mobile Meals Program together; the foundation provided the capital needed to acquire the initial food truck and the staffing assistance to coordinate volunteers and Sharp’s FNS team provides the  meals and administers the Lunch Lizard program.

“We know kids who are hungry have a harder time in school and have more difficult prospects for their adult life,” she said. “We were looking at a program that could literally change the lives of thousands of kids in Mesa County. I can’t say that we thought this is where we would start. But when the opportunity presented itself, we jumped at the chance to help.”

Today, the Community Alliance for Education and Hunger Relief, along with the Mesa County Hunger Alliance, a network of food pantry and hunger relief providers in Mesa County, works toward ending child hunger as well as all hunger in this county of nearly 150,000. Through innovative funding, a focus on connecting existing pipelines and a commitment to local solutions, the community alliance providers are working to move all kids and all families toward a hunger-free future.

“In all of our partnerships, everyone has contributed their strengths,” McQuade said of the food banks, school district, local non-profits and other groups at the alliance table. “We’ve found ways to work together, to engage the community and to make what is a real and meaningful difference for families in our community who deserve the same chances we all should have for a healthy life.”