Feature

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

Smells and noises evoking school cafeteria days saturate the air at Denver Rescue Mission's Lawrence Street Shelter.

Hundreds of people are eating a free Easter dinner on Good Friday—possibly the only decent meal they'll eat this weekend. A local news cameraman works the room, doing the requisite holiday charity story while politicians and media personalities in aprons serve up plates in two-hour shifts.

Some tables hold somber strangers eating hungrily, avoiding eye contact as if they don't want to be recognized. Others seat entire families—harried moms, kids, maybe a baby. Many are homeless; some are just down on their luck—a phenomenon all too common in Colorado. The most recent census data say 500,000 people in the state are "food insecure," the official euphemism for those worried about where their next meal is coming from. That half-million—more than 11 percent of the state population—stretches and scrimps, chooses cheap over nutritious foods, and often decides whether to purchase groceries or pay the electric bill. Some don't eat for consecutive days because they can't afford to buy any food.

How did a reasonably wealthy state—the 16th richest in the nation, according to the 2005 U.S. Census and the country's largest hunger relief organization, Second Harvest—end up with so many hungry people? It starts with the idea of self-sufficiency. Being self-sufficient means you adequately and consistently meet your family's needs for food, clothing, medical needs, and utilities—the essentials required to live a healthy, no-frills life. Right now, food and nutrition assistance is based on income level, not self-sufficiency standards. Government guidelines put the poverty line for a family of four at $20,650. If that same family makes $21,000, it's not considered "poor" and thus won't qualify for certain assistance. Experts suggest that a family of three in the Denver metro area needs an income of about $42,000 to be self-sufficient. "There's a fairly large number of households in Colorado that are over the poverty line but under the self-sufficiency standard," says state Representative John Kefalas, who's made it a personal mission to reduce poverty and hunger in Colorado. "They're the ones living paycheck-to-paycheck."

As part of the "Common Good Platform," Kefalas is trying to pass a self-sufficiency standard into law. It would require reassessment of individual circumstances—such as what part of the state you live in, kids' ages, and housing requirements—to determine eligibility for food aid. It's geared toward families who work but still can't make ends meet. "Many times these jobs are not paying wages that are allowing families to be self-sufficient," Kefalas says.

Even well-intentioned federal assistance programs often are inadequate. For instance, the Commodity Supplemental Food Program distributes nonperishables to almost 19,000 people in Colorado once a month, including goods such as canned beans, peanut butter, microwave popcorn, and pasta. Helpful? Yes. Enough? Unlikely. Similarly, the Food Stamp Program's average weekly allotment is a mere $25 per person. To find out how difficult it is to meet all your nutritional needs for what amounts to $3.57 a day, two local groups issued the 2007 Food Stamp Challenge in June. For one week, participants ate only what they could buy and prepare with their allotment. Kefalas and other prominent figures took the challenge to heart. "You eat simpler," he says. "You learn to appreciate lentils and potatoes a couple times over. It's a serious adjustment."

Still, $25 a week for food is far better than starving, which is why it's so unfortunate that only about half of Colorado's eligible residents participate in the Food Stamp Program. It no longer has to do with the stigma of handing over your stamps in the grocery line—they now come in credit-card form, so no one but the purchaser knows. Rather, confusion about the application procedures and rules of the program are limiting participation levels. Most Colorado counties have only one application site, without extended weekday or weekend hours, and the application is 21 pages long. The other irony is that finding a job can mean immediately losing eligibility for food assistance. Some rural Colorado residents face more basic challenges, such as a lack of access to distant grocery stores or understaffed assistance programs. In these remote counties, one-time efforts like school canned-good drives do little where the population is low and poverty is a way of life.

A host of community food pantries and hunger relief groups across the state offer some hope. The Colorado Anti-Hunger Network is backing the 2007 reauthorization of the Farm Bill, which would expand access to and eligibility for food assistance and increase allotment amounts. And in May, the governor signed into law the Smart Start Nutrition Program bill, which makes breakfast free for every child in Colorado public schools.

The first step to solving hunger may be to understand that it's everywhere, not just in the doorways on the 16th Street Mall. Coloradans experience food insecurity and hunger on many different levels, and the individuals in the next few pages come from different places and have different backgrounds. In the state's nutritional welfare system, these faces might be statistics. But here in this crowded shelter cafeteria, standing in line for holiday turkey and tiny cartons of milk, there are no graphics and percentages, just stories, waiting to be told.

Kelly Emrick
Transitional housing resident, Denver Rescue Mission's Champa House

Kelly Emrick's urinalysis didn't lie. "You're hot," said the lab staff at Champa House, the transitional housing facility where Emrick lived with her two small sons. It was just a hairline trace of cocaine, but enough to send Emrick and her family packing to a friend's one bedroom apartment, where $350 in monthly food stamps bought staples for five people. Not allowed back into the program for 90 days, she found work at Applebee's in the interim—and promptly lost her food stamp eligibility. "I was scared," she says. "I had to bring food home from work half the time for the kids to eat." She'd been down this road before, and the circumstances had eventually forced her to give up her third child for adoption at birth.

Emrick's history was the stuff of after-school specials: alcoholic parents, drugs, dropping out of high school, jail time, abusive boyfriends. "I always depended on a man," she says. "Even though he beat the crap out of me, I thought, I have no support out there, that's all I have." Stuck in a cycle where getting a job meant losing her food, medical, and daycare assistance, she and her two oldest kids survived on King Soopers cards donated by a friend. Fighting her pride, she finally applied to the self-sufficiency program at Champa House in 2005.

Emrick, now 28 and clean, is getting back on track her second time around at Champa House. She's started a job as a photographer, her two sons are in school and daycare, and they don't worry about where the next meal comes from. Her youngest child has been adopted by a caring family. Emrick faces a new challenge after she completes the training; she's been on the waiting list for Section 8 low-income housing for two years. "What if I can't pay this, what if this goes wrong, what's gonna happen to me?" she asks. "I'm not going to have [Champa House] to just fall back on, and all this support." But for the moment, sunlight streams through the window of her small apartment as she watches her three-year-old Dylan, babbling happily with his toys while Gavin, 9, plays outside. "You just get that feeling—that you're OK now," she says. "No, it's not perfect, but I have that ease, that OK feeling right now. And I haven't had that in awhile."

Susan Silva
Personal caretaker, Alamosa

Susan Silva opened the door of her Alamosa trailer home to find a social services worker with a worried expression. "Lenny is showing up at school pretty hungry," the caseworker said, referring to Silva's brother, afflicted with Down syndrome, chronic seizures, and crippling arthritis. With deceased parents, no job, and a meager home in a destitute area, Silva was simply thankful that someone had noticed. A sheaf of paperwork later, Lenny began receiving disability checks; years later, combined with a small sum Silva makes as Lenny's personal care provider, their joint monthly income comes to $991—enough to qualify for $200 worth of food stamps but not nearly sufficient for a healthy diet. "I don't even drink milk," Silva says. "I gave it up so Lenny would get the proper nutrition. Through the years I've eaten poorly so he could be strong and beat his health."

Silva, 43, took charge of Lenny 22 years ago when her parents became ill. She returned home to Alamosa from Denver, where she'd been working as a cashier at Elitch Gardens and waitressing at Denny's, to care for her struggling family. After her parents died, and without help from seven brothers who were scattered between Colorado, California, and prison, she moved the family mobile home from a farm plot in the country to an impoverished trailer park near town. She and Lenny were on their own. "I tried putting applications in everywhere, from the mushroom farm to Kmart, and I couldn't get work anywhere," she says.

Lenny's condition worsened with age, making work for Silva impossible anyway. Doctors said he wouldn't live to see 30; now 39, he requires full-time medical home care, and the costs have piled up. It's the unforeseen expenses, such as a recent blown car engine, that really take a toll. "That drained us of everything we had for a few months," Silva says. "When you're not prepared, you end up depending on the food bank. By the end of the month it's pretty tough."

Until Lenny's recent hospitalization, the pair ate lunch at a homeless shelter every day, where Silva shares her humble life with those less fortunate than herself. "We've met people whose time is up staying there, and we let them stay with us a night or two," she says. "It's kind of like a campout. They need the help." Without money to get three meals a day for herself and Lenny, not to mention a glass of milk, Silva is the first to open her trailer door to the struggling wanderers of dust-blown southern Colorado.

Olive Crawford
Volunteer Coordinator, Food Bank of the Rockies

Olive Crawford knew she'd hit rock bottom when she found herself standing on her front doorstep with a shotgun in her hand. She wasn't just defending her home from the crime in her southwest Denver neighborhood; it was a stance of defeat. She could no longer give her three children a safe place to sleep or a good dinner to eat. In an agonizing decision, she sent the two oldest (then seven and eight) to her sister's home in California.

It was a last-ditch attempt to slow the downward spiral into which she'd been born. "I remember scrounging around in garbage cans trying to find yummy things to eat," she says of her childhood in rundown Watts, Los Angeles. After moving to rural Oregon with her once-absentee father, she later married, divorced, and landed in Denver at age 25 with a second husband. Another divorce found her raising her kids in one of Denver's roughest areas while holding down a low-wage job at a title insurance agency. "A lot of times there was a decision as to whether to pay the electric bill or to buy groceries," she remembers. "There was no McDonald's, no movies or soda pop or any of that; it was just the bare basics."

After marrying a third time and moving to rural Brighton, Crawford felt stable enough to have a fourth child and even become a foster parent, which opened the door to volunteering at the Food Bank of the Rockies. "I began to see the scope of all the people who needed help—they were just like I was," she says. "It was so easy to help them. There was no support system there when I was in that situation."

Today, Crawford and her husband of 35 years enjoy a simple lifestyle on 20 acres of farmland in Watkins, and her kids are grown with college degrees and solid jobs. At her full-time position at the food bank, she guides people through the food sorting and distribution process. Volunteer work allows the food bank to donate 22.3 million pounds of food each year—enough for 47,000 meals a day—to Colorado and Wyoming hunger agencies and food pantries. Crawford takes the volunteers under her wing, helping to provide the kind of support she once dreamed of. "When you yourself are hungry, it's one thing; but when your kids are hungry, it's really difficult," she says through tears. "That's why I put so much into the food bank—because it means so much to help all those folks."

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."

Marylou Vigil Villada
Lunchroom Manager, Denver Public Schools Food and Nutrition Services

With a dubious glance at the side of broccoli on his tray, a tiny boy in an oversized summer-school T-shirt slides down the bench attached to one of many long, juice-stained tables in Maria Mitchell Elementary School's lunchroom. Most school cafeterias echo with emptiness by mid-June, but this one hums with chatter and smells of pizza. Kids of all ages form a sloppy single-file line, like unruly miniature soldiers, getting ready to march through the kitchen and pick up their lunch trays. Almost all are Hispanic or African-American, a hundred dark heads and bright eyes waiting for their leader, lunchroom manager Marylou Vigil Villada, to dish up the goods. "There are a lot of children who don't get fed during the day," she says. "Sometimes we're the only meal that they get."

Villada, 57, has worked for DPS Food and Nutrition Services for 15 years. During the academic year, she runs the cafeteria at Valverde Elementary, a largely Hispanic school on West Alameda. But there's no summer vacation in Villada's schedule; instead, she shows up at Mitchell every day at 7:30 a.m. to oversee operations for DPS' Summer Feeding Program. The school is one of 24 "open sites" in Denver, meaning any child, age 1 to 18, can show up during designated hours and receive a free meal—lunch, breakfast, or both at some sites—no questions asked.

Villada takes great pains to make sure the kids get what they may not be getting at home. She orders from a food-service warehouse, ensuring that it meets government-mandated guidelines for nutritional value—no mystery meat and Twinkies on her watch. From shepherding the kids, to cooking the food, to serving it up, Villada puts in the summer hours because, as the philosophy around here goes, learning doesn't stop just because school does, and a hungry child can't learn. "If we can teach children the correct way to eat, we can have fewer problems during the school year," she says. "I have children who don't know potatoes are vegetables. The only way they'll learn is if we show them. This program is worth it if one child isn't hungry during the day."

Back at the table, the little summer scholar has finally worked his way around to the veggies. Naturally, they're the last to go, but by the time he zips off to the playground to join his friends, the tray is empty.

Eduardo Jimenez
Homeless

With his possessions in a backpack at his feet and an uncertain glance at the translator, Eduardo Jimenez pushes a tattered folder across the table at Denver Rescue Mission's Lawrence Street Shelter. Inside are documents—some medical, some for identification. Jimenez, 37, can't read them; born in Juarez, Mexico, he is a legal alien who began ranching cattle full-time at age 12 and never attended school. What he does know is that he came to the United States for a better life, and that dream is vanishing quickly.

For 14 years he's been carrying what he believes to be a sexually transmitted disease, contracted a few years after he crossed the border into El Paso in 1989. The symptoms are so unbearable that he can't hold a steady job; he's worked four times in the last seven months, doing yard work and moving furniture. With the gradual loss of his house, car, and all semblance of a "better life," Jimenez came to Denver several months ago seeking treatment. But doctors here continue to send him away undiagnosed, hastily referred elsewhere, and with little hope for a cure. The temporary pain medication they do prescribe makes him so sluggish he has trouble waking up—making it difficult to stick to a schedule, receive regular meals, secure a shelter bed, and keep health appointments. "When I take medication and I can't find a place to sleep, I sleep under a bridge or in an alley," he says through the translator. "Sometimes I make it over to the Rescue Mission at 12 o'clock to eat, and sometimes I'm too out of it from my medicine to make it."

Jimenez's support system is almost non-existent. He's never received federal assistance, and he splits his days between the St. Francis Center day shelter, the Rescue Mission, and the banks of the South Platte, getting meals when he can. "I have no words for the shame," he says. "Many call me lazy and worthless, but I've learned to shut them off. I'm not on drugs, and I'm not an alcoholic. All I am is sick. They've always told me my condition is not curable. But my hope and prayer is that they are able to help me. I see myself being healthy and functional with a roof over my head and enough to eat, getting help from some kind of government agency—because I have worked. I have paid into Social Security. I have these rights, as a legal immigrant and as a human being."