Do you know where your next meal is coming from? How much it will cost for you to eat that meal? Will its portions keep you healthy, or just fed?
For many Pueblo residents, these questions determine whether they, or their families, go hungry on a daily basis.
In Pueblo, access to nutritious and affordable food is not always available. For East Side residents, a newly opened food pantry, Sunny Side Market, offers some relief for those living in poverty. The food pantry is located at 1230 E. Eighth St.
Other options for food resources, such as blessing boxes where neighbors can anonymously donate shelf-stable food items or other necessities, have also sprung up across the city.
However, Pueblo’s East Side is still considered a “food desert,” and has a long way to go until the area can be considered food secure.
Many areas of Pueblo are impacted by food insecurity issues
The term food desert can be confusing, said Monique Marez, director of the Pueblo Food Project, who said she prefers to use a power grid metaphor. Even if power is supplied to one neighborhood, it’s not much help to the neighborhood it borders on.
“The term desert is tricky, because people envision an empty, barren place,” she said. “That’s not the case — these are communities of people.”
She noted that Pueblo communities considered most “off the grid” in terms of access to sustaining food are Bessemer, near the steel mill, and the East Side. A mobile food pantry has been set up through NeighborWorks that traverses areas of the East Side and sets up on a nearly weekly basis on Seventh Street between LaCrosse and Monument streets.
Rocky Mountain Service, Employment and Redevelopment also holds food drives in Pueblo, operating out of 2717 West St., predominately.
Other areas of Pueblo also suffer from lacking access to nutritious and affordable food. Almost 25% of Pueblo County residents must travel more than 5 miles to get to the nearest place to purchase food. For another almost 3%, that distance is more than 30 miles, according to polling data provided by Share and Care.
In large part, area grocery stores are located along the main arterial roads of the city of Pueblo, following Interstate 25 and Colorado Highway 45.
In the face of faltering finances, many families and individuals turn to federal programs that help subsidize personal food bills.
For many Coloradans, this means accepting Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. Those accepting the benefits include up to a quarter of all personal care aides working in the state, and a sixth of all first-line supervisors for food preparation and serving workers or cooks.
These jobs have traditionally been paid low wages, and that has not changed in recent years. The state averaged almost $26 per hour for wages in 2017, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, with most of those workers taking SNAP benefits making far below that rate.
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The matter is not limited to any particular county. According to Hunger Free Colorado, which conducted a COVID Food Insecurity Survey in September, almost a third of the state’s residents struggle with affording food.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s September 2018 American Community Survey, more than 10% of the state’s residents live below the federal poverty line, which includes 13%, or about 1 in 8, children younger than 5 who are likely living in poverty.
In fact, Pueblo’s rates of hunger are far less than surrounding rural counties, according to federal nutrition maps.
Struggling to find the funds for food may cause families or individuals to turn to unhealthy options typically sold at a lower price for a higher caloric count. Of course, this in turn sets off some chain-reactions concerning individual’s health.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, there are many long-term effects from eating heavily processed foods, including gaining too much weight, heart disease or stroke, diabetes, cancer and even deficits to brain function.
The impoverished need ways to afford healthy food
At the recent opening of the Care and Share Sunny Side Market, lifelong Pueblo resident and current city council president Larry Atencio noted that the food pantry would be crucial for some families in the area.
“As you know, east Pueblo is a low- and moderate-income community — the poverty rate is tremendous,” he said. “People are food insecure — people just don’t have a place to go to eat, especially older people, especially people who don’t have cars or have cars that can’t go very far.
“The unemployment rate is higher here than it is in the rest of town — just all the social problems you can imagine are here,” he continued. “Something like this is going to alleviate those issues just a little bit. It’s not a lot, but we have to take steps, little steps, to make things better.”
As of March 2020, one out of every 13 Coloradans were utilizing SNAP funds, including working families, children, older adults, veterans and those with disabilities, according to the Colorado Food Assistance Program fact sheet provided by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
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Two-thirds of Colorado SNAP participants have children, CBPP also shared in its fact sheet. The data shows that monthly, SNAP beneficiaries receive on average $343 a month to help subsidize the cost of food. A single-individual household receives a maximum allotment of $204, countered by a minimum allotment of $16.
If so much aid is offered, why are so many people — especially children — still hungry?
In Pueblo, almost 80% of students in D60 are enrolled for free or reduced lunches during the 2018-19 school year. Similar numbers for D70 were not immediately available. However, the freshly reissued Colorado SNAP Outreach toolkit shows that 45% of SNAP recipients were younger than 18. However, this may be due to the populations that typically are willing to apply and accept SNAP benefits. Only 59% of the possible population that could be receiving SNAP were, as of 2017 the toolkit cited.
According to Marez and research from the Pueblo Food Project, the SNAP dollars also help fund the businesses which accept the funds. In 2020, the Food Project was able to help the Pueblo Farmers Market start accepting SNAP dollars, which in turn will support local farmers and keep the federal funds local.
Some measures were implemented to ensure better feeding during winter months through COVID-19 restrictions. On Dec. 28, 2020, then-President Donald Trump authorized an increase to SNAP benefits to be allotments of 115% through June 30, 2021.
But simply increasing funds for food is not always enough.
Access to aid has become a barrier in more ways than one. In 2021, WiFi or internet has become another household necessity for many processes, including signing up for benefits or searching for possible aid.
Physically being able to transport oneself or food items is also a major barrier, and not just for the rural areas. In a 2016 study conducted on three focus groups in Pueblo, numerous community and individual factors were named as hindering access to healthy food.
That includes nearly 30% of food-insecure households’ transportation access.
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Pueblo is combatting food insecurities through various groups and initiatives
To help bring community partners together and allow collaboration, the Pueblo Food Project, NeighborWorks and the East Side Action Support Team, all have officials that meet weekly in a COVID-19 Hunger Relief Task Force to determine three items:
Do they have enough food to make distribution?
Has there been any major changes in their distribution or agency?
Does your organization have any critical, unmet needs?
These three questions, said Marez of the Food Project, allow the groups to know what the state of aid is in the city. It allows the groups to share food items that may go to waste if kept by a particular organization, or be able to share other resources like volunteers and skills.
According to Feeding America, it would take more than $11.8 million to address this hunger gap for a year in just Pueblo County, at an average cost of $3 per meal.
Statewide, that number is closer to $315.5 million.
Chieftain reporter Heather Willard can be reached via email at [email protected] and on Twitter @HeatherDWrites.