Amy Hadden Marsh
Here is a challenge (and an opportunity) to live on the food budget faced every day all year by local food-insecure families.
Food insecurity means living without access to sufficient quantities of nutritious, affordable food. Last year, just over 14 million US households did not always have enough money to buy food. The US Department of Agriculture‘s 2018 Household Food Security Report shows that Colorado was one of 22 states below the national average – with food insecurity affecting around 9% of the state’s households. At least 3% of older adults in Colorado had to choose between buying groceries and paying for medication. One out of every eight children in the state did not know where or when they’d get their next meal. This means, in a classroom of 20, two or maybe three students may not have had breakfast or didn’t know if they’d eat dinner at the end of the day.
“Food insecurity doesn’t just come and visit in November,” says Angela Mills, executive director of LIFT-UP, a regional food bank and advocacy organization. “It’s everyday that people wake up with this.”
An Everyday Situation
Close to a third of Colorado children live in households where families spend more than 30% of their income on housing. Mills explained that in the Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys, these are everyday situations. “Due to our cost of living, including the ever-growing cost of insurance, childcare, and increased costs of housing, many families find that proper nutrition often comes last,” she said.
Tight budgets force families to choose inexpensive and less nutritional items at the store. “For example, you can get a lot of ramen (dehydrated Chinese noodles) for $20 as opposed to securing nutrient-rich, fresh vegetables and high protein items,” she said.
LIFT-UP’s $4/day Challenge
Colorado Food Assistance Program statistics show that the average Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipient receives benefits equal to $1.39 per meal, adding up to $4.17 per day. So, LIFT-UP began a “$4-A-Day Challenge” to give local residents a chance to see what it’s like to live on this budget for one week.
Carbondale resident Aaron Taylor stepped up. “I was inspired to explore a different perspective and reality of what it would be like to shop for food with price being the first variable to focus on,” he explained.
Taylor shopped at City Market and spent $25 for the week. He bought peanut butter, five pounds of rice and beans in bulk, and discount vegetables, fruit, and bread. “Dried cranberries were a big splurge,” he said. Other than feeling hungry during the week, Taylor said he also felt socially isolated. “I can see how my own social engagements and price-conscious shopping turned me inward and away from others,” he explained. “I can see how the foundational level of having enough food can improve flourishing in an individual’s life.”
Food Insecurity Impacts More Than Hunger
Angela Mills agreed. “Food insecurity does not mean people are starving,” she said. “It means they’re unsure of when they’ll be able to go grocery shopping again.”
She said this leads to social isolation because people can’t afford to meet for coffee or at a restaurant. It also leads to lower self-esteem. “Without the basics, such as shelter and food, no one is in the space to develop,” she said. “If one out of eight kids in Colorado doesn’t know where the next meal is coming from, how do you dream of college?”
Buying to reduce global or environmental impacts is also a challenge on a SNAP budget. If a dozen free-range, organic eggs cost $6, for example, and a carton of regular eggs costs $2, which is attainable on $4 a day?
Mills said it’s a privilege to think about how food shopping impacts the world around us. “If someone is in survival mode, they’re not thinking about if they’re supporting the environment or local agriculture,” she said. “They’re thinking about how they’re going to make rent, how they’ll get to work today or can they afford daycare this month.”
How to Help
There are people and organizations working on solutions. According to guidelines developed this year by the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health, fresh vegetables and fruit don’t have to be sacrificed on a tight budget. EAT is a non-profit organization based in Stockholm, Sweden dedicated to creating a global, sustainable food system to maintain both human health and that of the planet. While a plant-based diet may not be appealing to everyone, health experts, including Dr. Greg Feinsinger of Carbondale, say that moving away from a meat-based diet is better for the earth and better for human health. EAT’s guidelines show that the most affordable green diet would cost $2.84 per day.
LIFT-UP is developing programs to support local farmers and help provide their clients with fresh food. “We want to advocate and not just hand off a can of beans,” Mills explained. “We’re providing our clients with food that they want and need.”
The organization has received grants to help its food pantries purchase meat and produce grown and raised in Colorado, including ground beef and vegetables from Carbondale-based Potter Farms.
Mills said that’s all a part of the organization’s goal for next year. “LIFT-UP wants to fill the food insecurity gap in our regions with high-quality, nutrition-rich items that will fuel our clients to reach their goals,” she said.