As inflation spikes, The Community Market continues to feed an ongoing need
Local nonprofit continues to see increased demand from pre-pandemic levels at its valley operations
EDWARDS — On any given day of the week, a line forms outside the doors of The Community Market’s new location at the Vail Health Community Health Campus. The length of the line is typically longer on weekdays than on this Saturday when local state Rep. Dylan Roberts stopped in, but employees and volunteers at the market say the need is consistent.
If you’re looking for a barometer of the local economy as it emerges from COVID-19 impacts, you’ll find it right here. At the pandemic’s onset, when unemployment spiked locally, The Community Market went from serving an average of 1,800 local residents a week at its main hub in Gypsum to around 3,800.
Since opening a new location in Edwards in May 2020, then moving into the new space at the Community Health Campus in December 2021, the food assistance program has grown its reach as volunteers and staff have worked to “rescue” more food than ever from local grocery stores, wholesalers and farmers. But while unemployment has dropped to historic lows in Eagle County, with more jobs than workers to fill them, the need for food assistance hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels.
At its Gypsum and Edwards locations, as well as at pop-up markets around the valley, The Community Market is serving between 2,600-2,700 residents a week, according to Melina Valsecia, the executive director of the Eagle Valley Community Foundation.
And it’s no mystery what’s driving that need: the sharpest spike in inflation in four decades.
Roberts, for one, said he and other lawmakers at the Capitol are acutely aware that while the economy has recovered drastically from the plunge it took in the early months of the pandemic, high costs for basic necessities like food and gas are pushing household budgets to the limit.
“What I’ve heard and what we’ve been hearing from advocates during this legislative session about some of the bills that we’re working on in this field is that even with unemployment going down and a lot of people being able to find work, cost of living and inflation is still a major concern,” he said. “And so even if you are employed, your dollar isn’t going as far as it used to. And so people still have to rely on food banks and assistance programs to get by for either themselves or their families.”
Rescuing food, helping people
Whatever preconception you may have about food pantries or food banks, full of canned products or other non-perishable items, it’s not going to match up with what you’ll find at The Community Market.
The new Edwards location more closely resembles a boutique grocery story, brimming with fresh produce, meat and dairy products. There are plenty of non-perishable items available as well, and some candy for smiling kids, but the market’s mission is to provide healthy, nutritious food to the community.
It does so by rescuing food that would otherwise end up in the local landfill.
Anne Redden serves as the director of programs and operations for The Community Market. In 2021, Redden said the local nonprofit, with its partners, rescued 576,000 pounds of food spanning from the City Market in Vail all the way to Costco in Gypsum.
The Community Market and other area food banks partner with Feeding America, a nationwide nonprofit that works with more than 200 food banks that feed more than 46 million people across the country. Feeding America has agreements with local grocers and wholesalers to save food that doesn’t make it on the floor of a grocery store.
Which is how, six days a week, The Community Market has three vans going up and down the valley collecting food that lives in the in-between.
“Over 50% of the food that goes out of our door every single day is fresh produce and dairy and meat and milk,” Redden said. “I mean, right now you see eggs over there and we haven’t had eggs in a few weeks, so we actually just went and purchased eggs from Costco yesterday because we know how important it is.”
This doesn’t mean the rescued food that doesn’t make it to local grocery stores isn’t nutritious or delicious.
“There’s so many fresh products that don’t get to the grocery store, because they are not initially good color, or because the quality doesn’t pass the quality control piece,” Valsecia said. “It doesn’t mean they don’t have any nutrition.”
Valsecia also said the nonprofit works with local farmers to purchase produce that isn’t bought by grocers. The three pillars for the Eagle Valley Community Foundation, which operates the market, are healthy people, strong communities and environmental sustainability.
It’s not hard to see how it’s living up to that mission when you notice the smiles on the faces of residents who arrive to get healthy, fresh food to feed their families.
Instead of food assistance, Valsecia said food pantries like The Community Market are providing income assistance for residents who are struggling to make ends meet. By cutting down on their weekly food costs, it allows them to cover other expenses like rent, gas, electric and utility bills — or unforeseen medical expenses.
On Saturday, while touring the market in Edwards, Roberts was introduced to Elvia Orozco, a local woman who explained that an accidental fall required her to have surgery on her wrist that left her with medical bills that constrained finances. She told Roberts that the market was an essential resource for her to help feed a large family so the money she earned from work could help pay off her bills.
Breaking the stigma
The market is a community hub, buzzing with activity, from volunteers and workers stocking shelves and refrigerators to residents perusing produce and picking up fresh meat or dairy products.
Smiles are the default facial expression, from those who work in the market to those who arrive to take home food. Those preconceptions that might exist about food assistance or hunger just don’t exist inside its walls.
Valsecia said that’s because every resident who shows up is welcome. There are never any questions asked about finances, or citizenship status.
The one question that everyone is asked is: How many people are you shopping for today? That’s so the nonprofit can track its reach in the community.
“Right now we’ve kind of settled in the space of about 2,600 to 2,700 a week,” Redden said. “So we have about 900 shoppers who come through our door, who then shop for their family. We ask a few questions, but no questions about financial background, no barrier questions. How many people are you shopping for today? That’s all we want to know.”
An ongoing need
What exactly does food insecurity mean? According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it’s a measure to quantify lack of access, at times, to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members and limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods.
But for Valsecia, it’s a simpler classification: “Food insecurity is when people are eating less or not eating enough because they think they don’t have enough food or enough money,” she said.
And for certain, there is stigma around admitting that you’re depriving yourself of a healthy diet because you’re unable to afford it. Measuring food insecurity is often hard to pin down, simply because it’s a moving target. Data shows that Eagle County has some of the highest food insecurity rates in the state and the country.
But a more tangible measurement is the line out the door at the market, and how much food is going out into the community to feed residents who otherwise would be depriving themselves.
Roberts, for one, said he’s hopeful that some current legislation being debated at the Capitol will help address that ongoing need.
Among the pieces of legislation aimed at helping lower costs for Coloradans is Senate Bill 87, which would give free healthy meals to every student in the state from kindergarten all the way through 12th grade.
“A lot of elementary schools have it and then it drops off or now there’s an increased demand for anybody who has kids at any age,” he said. “And so in order to both end the stigma around free lunch, it’s important to try and get that into as many schools as possible, regardless of age or location, but also to get healthy food into schools because we’re seeing the health consequences of not giving kids healthy meals during the day. So that’s the big push that I’ve heard for many months now is we have to do this for K-12 in every school.”
Roberts also mentioned tax credit programs and tax incentive programs that the state could offer to businesses to encourage them to donate food or sell food and decrease prices to food banks.
While those who met with Roberts on Saturday are hopeful that more funding and assistance, whether from the state, or matched by the federal government, is on the way, they’re also focused on their mission in Eagle County.
And that’s continuing to rescue as much food as possible for anyone who needs it.
“My goal for this year is to make sure that I don’t have that conversation where someone says, ‘What is The Community Market?’” Redden said. “We have an outreach program where we’re going into Eagle County schools everywhere, from the early childhood programs through the high schools. We work with the senior center. We work with moms and preschool age students, and we just try to make sure that people know that food insecurity, we can help with that. That’s our goal. It’s healthy food.”