Wyomingites once grew food in their own backyards or hunted it in the mountains. These days, though, more rural people are driving distances to reach a grocer, or even just a mini-mart, for their food. It’s led to nearly 75,000 people in Wyoming struggling with hunger and access to healthy fresh foods.
But now farmers markets, food pantries and nutrition groups in the state are collaborating to start a council to address the state’s food security issues.
The Little Free Food Pantries
We walk deep into a garage in the city of Gillette where several old newspaper dispensers sit. But they’re about to be re-purposed into food dispensers instead.
Over the groan of a garage door, Gillette Farmer’s Market co-director Megan McManamen explains how it will work.
“A lot of the free little food pantries will say something like, ‘Take what you need, leave what you can,’” she says.
McManamen is one of a group of women from all sorts of nonprofits and agencies working on a program called Sharing the Harvest to help low-income families get better access to locally grown foods. McManamen doesn’t get paid for this work, nor does Farmer’s Market Co-Director/Farmer Erin Galloway.
“It just needs to be done,” says Galloway. “Everybody needs to have access to food. It’s not something that should be unavailable and I can raise food on the ranch and I can share that.”
Galloway plans to grow veggies to help fill the pantries.
“Things like root crops like beets and carrots will have a longer shelf life,” she says. “In the fall when winter squashes and edible pumpkins will do really well for long periods of time.
Centcible Nutrition’s Beth Chapell says they will place these pantries in local parks and fill them with food, or even toothbrushes or toys, where anyone can have access. A local autobody shop painted the pantries bright red and yellow. Chapell’s favorite is the blue sparkly.
“That one looks like fingernail polish.,” I point out.
Chapell laughs. “Isn’t that fancy?”
But Chapelle says making them fancy sends an important message.
“We want it to be very comfortable for people, so they don’t have that stigma attached to it that they may not have what they need,” she says.
Rates Of Hunger In Wyoming
And right now, what many people in Gillette need is healthy food.
“With the downturn of the coal, we’ve had in the last couple years, there’s been a little bit of an uptick in that, of more people qualifying, more people having some food insecurity,” says Chapell.
She says a new study found that 2,200 families in Gillette aren’t able to fill their basic needs.
This isn’t just a problem in Gillette though; hunger affects the whole state. Albany County actually has the highest rates where 17 percent of the population lacks access to good food, many of them college students. The Wind River Reservation and Uinta County suffer too, and it’s the children in those places that feel the hunger pangs the worst, according to a report by Feeding America.
These rates have prompted food groups like Gillette’s Sharing the Harvest to go in search of state-wide collaborators.
“We’re probably all working on the same things but if we could just communicate more and build those partnerships, I think we’d all find it could be beneficial for everyone,” says Farmer’s Market Director McManamen.
A Food Security Summit
So, recently, the Gillette group traveled to a summit in Casper to meet with a growing network of food activists around the state. The Wind River Reservation’s Growing Resilience Project was there as was Casper’s Food for Thought Project. Those groups also grow gardens and work with farmer’s markets as a way to feed the hungry.
Casper’s Food For Thought Director Jamie Purcell leads a tour of their vast kitchens and gardens.
“We like to call this the urban farm rather than the community garden because we do a lot more out here than just growing,” says Purcell.
Some of this food ends up going out to feed the hungry. Down in the bag packing kitchen, Purcell shows me where volunteers come every Wednesday.
“We can pack 700 bags in about 20 minutes, so we’ve got it down to a system.”
But Purcell says it’s not enough just to make sure people have bags of food or are on food stamps.
“It means so much more than having food quote-unquote, on the table,” she says. “It’s really more about healthy food and culturally appropriate food and food that you know how to cook or you know how to preserve.”
University of Wyoming Community and Public Health Professor Christine Porter has investigated the health benefits of gardening through projects like The Food Dignity Project, and she helped organize the summit. She says when people buy and eat food grown by local producers, they’re healthier and it diversifies the economy.
“Which is a huge priority right now,” says Porter. “Food is one of the most powerful ways to do it. That’s what other states are doing and that’s what food policy councils helps create.”
That’s what these groups all hope to organize—a food policy council that could get all parts of Wyoming’s food system speaking to each other: lawmakers, grocers, farmers and, most especially, the eaters.
“If a voice is missing or not having negotiating power at such a council, it is often the people who are struggling with food insecurity,” says Porter.
Wyoming is the only state that doesn’t have such a council.
Gillette Farmer’s Market Director McManamen says, a council could make valuable changes by advocating for small farmers and the people they feed.
She would like to see a council make sure all Wyoming farmer’s markets take food stamps, help farmers upgrade their equipment and get local foods into schools.
“We want to partner with people who are ready and willing to make some change and let’s revolutionize the food economy in Wyoming,” she says.
The first step in that revolution, McManamen says, is getting food in people’s hands. Those sparkly little food pantries will be unveiled in parks around Gillette after a food drive to fill them July 14.