Hunger trumps Colorado Plains pride
The Denver Post
No one knew whether a food bank would go over in the Eastern Plains, where a culture of pride and taking care of yourself through tough times runs deep.
“People here are very independent, and expect you to carry your own weight,” said the Rev. Burry Bessee, who oversees the pantry operations in Hugo. “There’s a big stigma in taking welfare.”
But in the end, hunger pangs born of drought, agricultural layoffs and a bad economy beat out pride.
When the Care and Share Food Bank of Southern Colorado started the food pantry two years ago, it delivered about 1,500 pounds of food out of a small truck.
That number has soared to 30,000 pounds a month – delivered by a truck with a 53-foot trailer packed with food for a string of towns scattered through three counties: Kiowa, Lincoln and Cheyenne.
“It’s unfortunate that our folks who have laid some of the foundations for our country are having to stand in line and get assistance like this,” said Lori Kapu, chief programs officer for Care and Share. “It’s good it’s there, but it’s sad knowing they have to use it.”
In Eads, Orville Mousel is among those rooting through bins of bread, bagels, cakes and pastries. He juggled boxes of apple and peach pie, and wore a cap emblazoned with U.S.S. California BB-44.
“I was on the guns until Dec. 7 when it got sunk” in Pearl Harbor, he said, looking for a cherry pie to trade for the peach. “We were ahead of the Arizona, and the Oklahoma capsized right behind us.”
Nearby stands a 92-year-old woman named Faye Barber, who lived here during the Dust Bowl.
“It started when I was 15, and newly married,” she said. “By early afternoon it would be dark as night, and the chickens would start to roost, and the dust just piled up on the windowsills.”
She sat on a folding chair next to her 88-year-old sister and eyed crates filled with Granny Smith apples, nearly 2,200 pounds of them.
The sisters want to make the comfort foods of the Dust Bowl days – apple butter, apple sauce and apple pies.
“I don’t let anything go to waste,” said Barber, who receives about $1,000 a month, a mix of Medicaid, food stamps and Social Security payments.
Earlier that morning, in Hugo, people were already waiting in line as the mobile pantry chugged down the street an hour before the doors opened.
Karen Kovar, who runs the mobile food pantry there, said numbers have more than doubled, from 60 two years ago to 125 families now.
“People weren’t involved in agriculture very heavily this year,” she said. “Businesses have cut back. We’re seeing rebound children already – they went off, got married, bought a home, lost the home, and are now back living with parents.”
Joan and Leonard Craig, married 43 years, were near the front of the line. They arrived here last year from San Francisco, after they retired from jobs at Walmart.
“We thought things would be better here,” said Joan, “but we’re pretty much on our own.”
Family members who live nearby haven’t been able to help as much as anticipated.
They live on about $1,500 a month. Recently, they gave up their van, which cost $500 a month. Now Leonard mows lawns and does other odd jobs to barter with a friend for a ’94 Dodge truck.
Joan planted two small vegetable gardens – mostly tomatoes and corn – to augment their food budget.
In Cheyenne Wells, the food pantry is held at the county fairgrounds. Nearly 4,000 pounds of pounds of food disappears in 30 minutes.
“We’re not close to catching up to the need out there,” said Alex Edwards, Care and Share’s interim president and chief executive. “We’re just trying to do a whole heck of a better job.”
Wanda Olsen works as a volunteer and takes boxes of leftover food out to neighbors where she lives, about 20 miles north of Kit Carson – to people like a 90-year-old man who just lost his wife.
She also makes deliveries to a neighbor who just lost her husband and who can use the food, but is too proud to accept it for nothing. So she drives to Olsen’s church in Wild Horse and collects the shingles from the ground, a pile left from when a tornado blew the roof off, and gives them to Olsen.
“That’s her donation, kind of like her payment back,” said Olsen. “It makes her feel like she’s done her little thing, and it helps us, because we don’t have to do it.
“That’s the only way you can survive out here,” said Olsen. “I do for you, and you do for someone else, or you come back and do for me.”
A survey showed a good bit of support for local government action to bolster workforce housing in town. For now though, that support stops at supporting a new tax for funding.