Our Community Foundation: Healthy food for all is a right, not a privilege
Alejandrina Luevano lives in a modest, dark gray house with a wrap-around porch in the Two Rivers community of Dotsero. Upon entering Alejandrina’s home, a wave of warmth and smells and sounds washes over. Smells of home cooking and the sounds of all of the neighborhood children that Alejandrina takes care of while their parents work 10 or 12 hours a day.
Alejandrina is slight, with dark hair always pulled back and a smile as bright as the Colorado sun. No one leaves Alejandrina’s eclectically decorated house without at least three abrazos and a full stomach.
“Me da gusto cuando puedo compartir mi comida con otras personas, me da mucho gusto,” she said. “I like when I can share my food with other people, it makes me very happy.”
Although she is retired, Alejandrina is constantly cooking and looking after her neighbors’ little ones, all to the rhythm of the songbirds that she keeps as pets in her living room. She often has a smile on her face, but she is firm and frank when talking about the challenges that low income, Latino communities face here in Eagle County.
Life in a ‘food desert’
Alejandrina said she started coming to the Eagle River Valley Food Bank’s mobile market in Two Rivers sometime last summer when she first found out about the program. Ever since, she said she comes whenever she is able to get food for her family.
“Well, I come because it helps me a lot,” Alejandrina said. “What I go to the market for is basically just the vegetables and in the stores all of that kind of stuff is very expensive but you know I like to give vegetables to my children and my grandchildren.”
When she is unable to come to the no-cost market put on by the food bank, Alejandrina must drive 20-25 minutes to Eagle City Market or Costco to shop. The town of Dotsero is only made up of homes, with no grocery stores or other services available in the whole town.
The nearest place to get fresh food is the Ridley’s in Gypsum, which is still 15 minutes away and has a much smaller selection of produce than the City Market in Eagle. Rita Mary Hennigan, the sustainability coordinator for the Eagle River Valley Food Bank, said this is often referred to as a “food desert.”
“So a lot of times communities are identified as ‘food deserts’ because they only have a convenience store and they don’t have a real grocery store,” Hennigan said. “Dotsero doesn’t even have that. So Dotsero residents really do not have easy access to any kind of food, much less fresh food.”
Compounded with the issue of transportation in Dotsero, this can pose a real problem for families who want to feed their families healthy, home cooked meals on a regular basis.
While the Eco Transit bus line makes frequent stops up valley and even in Eagle and Gypsum, Alejandrina’s husband, Manuel Luevano, said the bus only comes to Two Rivers once or twice in the early morning and twice in the evening just before 4 p.m. and then again around 6:30 p.m.
“During the day there is nothing, the bus doesn’t come at all,” Manuel said. “It’s impossible to get anywhere on the bus during the day or outside of those few times so if you can’t drive it’s very hard.”
Alejandrina has had a few surgeries on her shoulder, which still cause her pain and prohibit her from being able to carry heavy shopping bags while walking. She said her doctor told her recently that she should no longer be driving, but luckily her husband works part-time and is often available to drive her to the store.
“My arm hurts when I have to lift and carry heavy things,” Alejandrina said. “So imagine if I had to take the bus to shop, it would be impossible and also there’s only one bus stop here which is far from my house. But many people have no other choice.”
Feeling the housing crunch
There are many low-income families in Eagle County that live farther up the valley, closer to grocery stores and other amenities. However, an increasing number of people working in low wage jobs, many in the service industry, have been forced to look to downvalley towns like Gypsum and Dotsero in the search for affordable housing.
Jenny Lang-Burns, a family nurse practitioner for Mountain Family Health Clinic, said that one of the biggest issues to look at in addressing hunger and access to healthy food in the valley is the availability and location of affordable housing.
“The greatest barrier here is people’s inability to find affordable housing in the same place where they work,” she said.
Manuel commented that oftentimes even people willing to make the hour commute from Vail in order to live in Dotsero still end up working two or three jobs just to stay afloat.
“The cost of living here is so high, it’s important not to underestimate that,” Hennigan said. “In our community, folks can be well above the federal poverty level and still not be making enough money to make ends meet.”
A broken food system
And then, on top of it all, you have the elevated cost of buying fresh grocery items in Eagle County. Kelly Liken, interim food systems director for the Eagle River Valley Food Bank, said that the price of fresh goods here is representative of a broken food system which is not serving all members of the community efficiently.
“The cost alone of fresh produce as compared to its processed and packaged counterparts is a barrier for many people,” Liken said. “Healthful food is a basic human right, not a privilege. This is why we are committed to sourcing and distributing fresh produce. If we can eliminate that impossible choice, and take the pressure off the grocery budget in the most expensive areas, then our customers can spend their grocery dollars as they see fit; knowing they are feeding their families in a way they can feel good about.”
Alejandrina is all too familiar with the struggles of preparing healthy meals for a large family on a diminishing budget, especially living in Dotsero where families feel the negative effects of a resort economy but are unable to share in the wealth that tourism brings to the valley.
“We have a lot of bills and expenses to pay and then I have to buy food for the whole family with what is left over and, sometimes, there’s not much left,” Alejandrina said.
“This is a real source of stress for low-income families in our community because people have a natural desire to raise their families well and to raise their families in a way that allows them to live active and productive and happy lifestyles,” Hennigan said.
Traditionally, food banks and other food assistance programs have relied on long-lasting food to fill their shelves such as canned or processed goods because these products are less logistically challenging to source and distribute. This model made sense in the era when most food assistance programs began, in a post-WWII society wrought with extreme hunger and a need for emergency food services.
However, according to Lang-Burns, hunger in our community today looks a lot different.
“Here, hunger is not the skinny malnourished child that you see pictures of,” she said. “It’s the people who have to eat more high fat, low nutrition foods because they are more affordable but then don’t get all of the nutrients that their bodies need to be healthy.”
Filling the gaps
In the new era of food assistance, organizations are realizing that many of the gaps that still exist in the area of equal access to food center around providing more fresh, healthy food options that don’t break the budget. After all, access to healthy food is a right that should be afforded to all people, regardless of income.
But if the traditional food bank model needs to change, then the traditional food drive model should change with it. This means opening up the conversation to new ways that people can support organizations in striving to improve access to nutritious food.
In the interest of furthering this conversation, the Eagle River Valley Food Bank will have a booth at the Edwards Corner Farmer’s Market every Saturday from 9-1:30 p.m. At the booth, we will be giving out more information about our services, selling merchandise to support our emphasis on securing fresh produce and hosting a “fresh food drive” in coordination with the local food vendors.
Through this program, we are encouraging shoppers to add a little extra of whatever foods they are buying for their home and then donate that food to our booth to be redistributed to local, low-income families.
“So with the fresh food drive, we are trying to kind of change the narrative around how we can best serve our communities based on the needs and desires that we have heard the community members that we interact with express,” Hennigan said. “We’re trying to bring access to these really fresh, nutrient dense, Colorado grown foods to people who traditionally don’t have as much access or as easy a time accessing those kinds of food.”
To reflect our growing role within the community and our renewed focus on providing fresh food, the Eagle River Valley Food Bank will now be referred to as The Community Market. If you would like to come visit us at the Edwards Corner Farmer’s Market to learn more about our work, look for The Community Market banner!
“I think [the fresh food drive] is a very good idea,” Alejandrina said. “This is what we need, good food, especially for the children that I take care of. They say that children are like little trees, you have to feed them well when they are small so that they grow up beautiful and strong.”
Kelli Duncan is a marketing and volunteer coordinator with the Eagle River Valley Food Bank, a project of Our Community Foundation.