The Face of Hunger

Colorado is the 16th-wealthiest state in the nation. So why are so many of our neighbors still having trouble putting food on the table?

September 2007

Martin Caldwell
Cancer patient / Jefferson County Schools retiree

Every 21 days, Martin Caldwell receives injections laced with Chinese gerbil ovarian cells. Caldwell doesn't bat an eyelash. It's the latest in an endless string of cancer treatments that can't seem to penetrate his chronic lymphocytic leukemia. The treatment is partially experimental, which means the expenses are partially covered. But these days there's nothing good about any expenses for Caldwell, who has years' worth of medical bills for previous treatments, and whose diagnosis seven years ago forced an early retirement. With more going out than his retirement checks can cover, Caldwell, 58, now finds himself at AgapeLife Church food bank in Arvada every Thursday, picking up food staples for himself and his 12-year-old son. "That saying—that you're one paycheck away from living on the streets? I'd never even given it a second thought," Caldwell says. "Now, that couldn't be more true. The bread and canned goods really help me fill in the corners."

Things weren't always this tight. Caldwell worked for JeffCo Schools as a facilities supervisor for 25 years and lived with his family on a ranch at Table Mountain. When the cancer hit and his wife couldn't handle the early struggles, they divorced and the bills began piling up. Though he has custody of his son about 60 percent of the time, he still pays a hefty monthly sum to his ex-wife in child support. Add to that his taxes and insurance costs, and all told he takes home $870 a month to cover out-of-pocket expenses such as rent ($520), a phone bill ($50), the electric bill ($30), and other incidentals, including groceries. He laughs dryly at the prospect of federal assistance. "I finally became humble enough that I went to Human Services a month ago," he says. "My gross income is too much to even qualify for food stamps. I can't get Medicare, Medicaid—anything—because they look at your total gross income, and don't look at your child support, insurance costs, et cetera."

He tried to work for a while, but the added stress landed him in intensive care for six days. So now he's changed his lifestyle, canceling Internet access at home and limiting his shopping primarily to thrift stores and the local dollar store. He shares a car with a neighbor and splits the insurance costs because he couldn't afford to repair his own. He's been visiting the food pantry for 18 months. "I'm a type A person; to be slowed down this way is really hard," he says. "It's very humbling. You don't want to be seen or run into somebody who might know you're having a hard time." But, he offers with a grin, "It's my firm belief that attitude is 75 percent of everything. 'Poor me' doesn't really work in my vocabulary."