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The Northern Arapaho Summer Food Program is feeling the increase in food and gas prices

A small group of people and a couple of dogs stand behind the open trunk of a minivan.
Taylar Stagner
Wyoming Public Media
Janelle Underwood and Melissa Carrillo hand out food at Beaver Creek Housing in the Summer of 2022.

The sun beats down on a small car packed with coolers filled with chocolate milk and tiny lunches. Around 150 kids' meals are ready for pick up.

This is a mobile food pick up spot for kids from 6 months to 18 years old who might be without food during the summer months. This is one of five stations that serves the Northern Arapaho community.It is supported by the tribe with additional assistance from the state. But the program is becoming harder to fund.

For instance, the Northern Arapaho grocery bill was $120,000 last year - a cost that continues to rise. And that's not even accounting for gas.

And next week, the summer meal program will be increasing its output to 400 meals a day in Arapaho.

"We're having tacos. Hard shell tacos with lettuce [and] tomato, and watermelon on the side and refried beans with cheese and chocolate milk," Melissa Carrillo said as she handed out lunches.

She said she has 150 meals to hand out here in Beaver Creek and a few miles away at airport housing, also owned and operated by the Northern Arapaho.

"Usually every day we go through all of them. Right now we're not so busy, but usually, we're wiped out within about 20 minutes of getting here," she said.

The Northern Arapaho Summer Food Program has been doing these mobile sites since 2019 and they make it convenient for those in need of food who live in tribal housing but don't have access to a vehicle.

Sherry Blackburn sits at her desk as she coordinates food for Northern Arapaho community members.
Taylar Stagner
Wyoming Public Media
Sherry Blackburn sits at her desk as she coordinates food for Northern Arapaho community members.

This year the issue of rising gas and food prices is making everything more difficult, but the other problem is that it's hard to find people to staff the food program. Every summer they struggle to find drivers and cooks. That's for a number of reasons.

Janelle Underwood is also passing out meals today but says this is her last week because with prices going up, she can no longer afford to work here. And while she said the work they do is important, she took a better paying job in Ethete.

"It's only because it's more pay and it's more hours. So it all really just boils down to pay and hours. Because here we're only doing four hours. And I can't support my family on four hours," she said.

In her office in Arapaho, Sherry Blackburn runs the Northern Arapaho food programs. One is the Summer Food Program, which she started, and the other is the food program for elders. She says these programs are now vital for low income families who need ways to cut down on grocery bills.

"The cost of food is just… I think it's a real big factor in all of our people that we're serving because gas is so high, food is so high. And so this food that we're serving just provides a tremendous relief for all of our tribal members," she said.

But it takes a while to get the food where it needs to be.

"It's always been my policy to just accept them (program applications). But the problem that we run into when we just keep accepting applications is they leave here by 10:30 in the morning, and some of our people don't get their meals until four o'clock in the afternoon," she said.

Blackburn said that during these times of financial crisis, Indigenous kids and the elderly, who are the most vulnerable, are the first to be affected.

"I'm glad when school starts. These kids are hungry. And I'm glad that we're still able to provide a meal to the seniors. I see the need even more. So when I first started, it's… multiplied, you know?" she said.

She wants to accept all applications for those who are hungry but with staffing issues and growing operating costs, she might not be able to in the future.

Taylar Dawn Stagner is a central Wyoming rural and tribal reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. She has degrees in American Studies, a discipline that interrogates the history and culture of America. She was a Native American Journalist Association Fellow in 2019, and won an Edward R. Murrow Award for her Modern West podcast episode about drag queens in rural spaces in 2021. Stagner is Arapaho and Shoshone.
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