Local organizations adapt to meet changing food needs
Throughout the pandemic and into this summer, groups like The Community Market and Eagle County Schools are rising to meet evolving needs
During the pandemic, local organizations in Eagle County saw food needs change and grow. And this summer, as needs continue to evolve, they are rising to meet the occasion once again.
According to recent local data from the 2021 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, around 10% of high and middle school students said they usually or always went hungry because there wasn’t enough food at home during the pandemic. Similarly, local nonprofit The Community Market saw the numbers of its customers triple in 2020, increasing from serving nearly 1,000 customers a week to 3,000.
And while The Community Market’s numbers settled back down a little during 2021, this April, it saw an increase back to at, or around, pandemic numbers. According to Anne Redden, the nonprofit’s manager of programs and operations, in December 2021, the market was serving 2,750 customers a week and in April that increased to 3,200 a week, where it has remained since.
“This summer has already been different with the inflation and the price of gas, our numbers of people that we’re serving are going up,” Redden said. “Right now, we are in a cycle where we’re seeing more need in the valley across the board.”
Within Eagle County Schools, Chris Delsordo, the district’s director of nutrition services, said its summer program hasn’t experienced the same increase. However, that’s not all that surprising to Delsordo.
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“We really aren’t feeding a lot of kids,” he said. “In general, we’ve never really had a huge summer program demand, in my opinion.”
The district’s summer food program is an extension of the statewide free and reduced lunch program. This summer, the program is only offered at the Gypsum Recreation Center, where everyone between the ages of 2 and 18 can pick up free lunches. Currently, the meals are available for pickup Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays through July 15.
Delsordo said that the slow nature of this summer program this year could potentially be traced back to two main factors: one, staffing, as the school year staff is not required to work during the summer months; and two, there was only one site that met the state requirements to be able to feed these free meals to students.
The Gypsum Rec Center was the only site that was eligible as the schools nearby had a free and reduced lunch rate of 50% or higher.
However, beyond that Delsordo hypothesized that maybe families were around less in the county during summer, they don’t like the meals being offered or it has to do with the district’s low percentage of students that qualify and apply for the free and reduced program year-round. Typically, this number is around 30%, Delsordo said.
“There are families that still need it; you would think there would more,” he said. “But there’s so few students that take part in the program during the summer.”
And yet, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a need.
Within the schools, the federally funded universal free lunch program helped combat some of these COVID-19 impacts by offering free meals to all students. However, after funding the universal free program for the past two school years, the program is returning to pre-pandemic operations, where students have to apply for the free and reduced program to receive free or reduced meals. And students that don’t qualify will return to paying for meals.
There is, however, a statewide ballot measure that will be in front of voters in November to indefinitely cover the costs of school meals for all students.
In the meantime, applications are now open for families to apply for the free and reduced program, which Delsordo said has been recently re-branded as the “more than a meal program.”
“It’s not just about free food and all that, there are other benefits to filling out the application,” he said, adding that it includes free internet, waived fees for athletics and other things, as well as it is an important part of the state funding formula for the district. “Not only does it benefit the family, it benefits schools because we get funding based on our free and reduced percentage.”
These applications are currently available for families to fill out. While the applications are accepted and approved throughout the year, it’s most beneficial for the district for them to be turned in before the end of August.
“We really need families to start filling them out,” Delsordo said.
Looking forward to the year, Delsordo foresees challenges relating to building menus with supply chain issues and rising costs. However, the department will continue to adapt, no matter what.
“We’ll still get the students fed, that’s all that really matters to me,” he said. “When it comes down to it, it’s about making sure these kids have food in their stomachs.”
Barrier-free, dignified access
For The Community Market, creating access to nutritious food for all community members is — similar to the district — what it’s all about, all year round.
“We look at nutritious food as a right to the people in this community, it shouldn’t be just a privilege,” Redden said. “We are committed to the dignified customer experience where people can come into our doors and shop for their own food while promoting a healthy diet.”
With the increased demand during COVID-19, the nonprofit opened its second grocery location in Edwards to serve customers up valley in tandem with its Gypsum location and its mobile market.
This expansion, Redden said has been extremely valuable and allowed the nonprofit to meet growing needs.
“We know that we’re meeting additional needs in the valley and we’ve just been thrilled with the response, the generosity of Vail Health to allow us to be in the space and also the response from the community to embrace it and shop in the space,” she said.
Much of the food served in The Community Market’s grocery and mobile market locations is obtained through “grocery rescue,” Redden said.
“We go to the grocery stores and our local partners here in Eagle County and we rescue 600,000 pounds of food a year that was or would’ve been heading to the landfill two years ago,” she said, adding that the food is then brought to the markets and gone through to ensure it’s still viable product for customers.
And anything that the market can’t get through this or through donations — which includes two pallets of fresh produce a week from Food Bank of the Rockies and weekly deliveries from a group of farmers in Paonia — it purchases to ensure its customers have access to all that they need and want.
Ultimately, in meeting these needs through COVID-19, it also helped to heighten the awareness about what The Community Market does and will continue to do indefinitely into the future, Redden said.
Through the growing demand, Redden added that the nonprofit has been able to maintain these services and grow alongside it.
“We have the food; we’re not running out,” she said. “We have the fresh produce, dairy, bread and shelf-stable grocery items that we’ve always had.”
For more information on The Community Market — including hours for its locations and about volunteering — visit: EagleValleyCF.org.
To learn more about the National School Lunch Program — and to apply for free and reduced — visit CDE.State.CO.US/Nutrition