New Eagle River Valley Food Bank program delivers both food and dignity | VailDaily.com

New Eagle River Valley Food Bank program delivers both food and dignity

Patricia Esperon, a Special Intern with Our Community Foundation, hands out food at the Vail Valley Salvation Army in Avon. Esperson is coordinating the Gardens & Greenhouses in Avon.

GYPSUM — When you are a working Joe in Eagle County — and that's 47 percent of the county' population who are employed in the food service and accommodations, entertainment, recreation and retail sectors — it's really hard to make ends meet.

After paying high housing costs and rising insurance premiums, residents have to look at the rest of their budget for pennies to pinch. Ultimately, the area that they have to cut back is their household expenses and inevitably food is the biggest line item in that budget.

Feeding America, a nationwide nonprofit organization that includes a network of more than 200 food banks that feed more than 46 million people, estimates that 13.5 percent of Eagle County's children and 16 percent of its adults are food insecure. That means about 7,500 Eagle County residents are going without the basic nutrients needed to successfully engage at school or at work.

In a valley renown for its affluence, that's a staggering number. But a new effort through Our Community Foundation wants to make sure that all Eagle County residents have access to healthy, nourishing food.

"Healthy food access is a foundational requirement for all personal achievement, from basic family function, to educational achievement, through to simple pleasures like team sports or hiking. Hungry children cannot fulfill their potential by any measure," said Mike Rushmore, founder and board chair of Our Community Foundation.

"The need for additional healthy food access for families in our valley has been demonstrated by both independent research and anecdotal experience. The question should not be 'Is hunger really an issue?'" Rushmore said. "The question should be "Am I personally doing enough in my community to ensure there is no hunger?"

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Going mobile

The Eagle River Valley Food Bank will launch in mid May — a partnership of Our Community Foundation, Food Bank of the Rockies, Eagle County government, Vail Resorts, a number of community non profit groups and other entities that provide local food assistance.

A warehouse at 760 Lindbergh Drive in Gypsum will be the central operations hub for the program, where the food bank is housed. But the program will also bring food to locations throughout the Eagle River Valley for people who need it.

A mobile pantry service will provide food package drop offs at locations up and down the valley. Program participants will be able to pick up a box that contains a mixture of fresh and packaged food items designed to provide at least seven meals per person, per household.

According to Susie Davis, of Our Community Foundation, residents will not be confronted with an extensive process to participate.

"No one has to show us why they qualify. No one has to show us pay stubs," Davis said.

Instead, the program is focusing on the notion that nutritious food is vital to quality of life. We all know that it is easier and cheaper to eat unhealthy food — processed, high calorie selections — than to purchase and prepare fresh fruits and vegetables. But healthy food shouldn't be a luxury.

"We believe that the families that live and work in our valley should have the ability to live a healthy lifestyle, regardless of which neighborhood they live in, or school they attend," Rushmore said. "If families need an occasional helping hand, we should be a community that offers that hand."

What's more, the Eagle River Valley Food Bank will emphasize that getting some help doesn't mean failure.

Delivered with Dignity

"When you feel you are struggling to put food on the table, you feel shame," Davis said.

With its simple participation structure and its emphasis on healthy eating, the new service will confront that perception. The program will connect participants with their deliveries by using telephone numbers rather than names, which will be a boon for people in roommate situations because anyone living in a household can grab the box.

Through text messaging the program will reach out to participants to find out what they enjoyed in previous deliveries and what they would like to see inside future boxes.

Davis noted that when organizers were putting the program together, they asked potential participants what foods the wanted most.

"The No. 1 item was fresh fruit. No. 2 was olive oil," she said. "Actually asking people and getting those healthy responses makes me believe that our program goals are attainable."

She also noted that the program will meet another need that potential participants identified.

"People don't just want to be receiving help, they want to be helpers also," Davis said.

The program will offer many options for volunteers. For example, volunteers can help pack and deliver food boxes, organize the food bank warehouse or assist with program administration.

A work in progress

The mobile pantry is set to start deliveries in the Dotsero area on May 15 and the Eagle River Valley Food Bank program will then grow from there.

"We are going in with not so many answers, but with many questions. That is where dignity starts. That's were health starts too," Davis said.

Brian Raper is the new program and operations manager for the Eagle River Valley Food Bank. Over the last 24 years, Raper's career in professional management and customer service has primarily focused on outdoor recreation. He most recently directed a large public lands internship program between Southern Utah University and federal, state, and local public land management entities. Raper and his family moved to Avon in 2017 when his wife accepted the deputy district ranger position at the White River National Forest.

"Establishing partnerships and professional relationships tops Brian's list of priorities in leading a successful healthy food project," Davis said. "But effectively solving hunger in our rural resort community takes more than Brian. We need a community of champions addressing hunger to make a positive difference. Volunteer opportunities will be posted on Our Community Foundation website in early May."

With the help of community organizations and volunteers, the foundation and its partners believe the new food bank program has the potential to meaningfully improve the quality of life for many Eagle County families.

"Community foundations and the their donors can serve a transformational role in the communities they serve," Rushmore said. "By understanding the most difficult local issues, and working as a community to address them, lives can be, and are, changed."