By Mary Angell, Cowboy State Daily
As a laboratory medical tech at the Sheridan hospital, Jennie Gordon helped physicians diagnose diseases; as a representative for Abbott Laboratories, she repaired lab equipment at hospitals and clinics; as a rancher, she’s bottle-fed newborn calves and used her hair dryer to dry and warm them.
Now, as first lady of Wyoming, she not only supports her husband in his position but last week launched an initiative she hopes will help end childhood hunger in Wyoming.
The Wyoming Hunger Initiative is a nonprofit, bipartisan organization that will oversee community operations that provide food to children in the state who are hungry or don’t know where their next meal is coming from.
“I think there are already people in place doing all the work,” she told Cowboy State Daily. “What I see my position as being is putting a spotlight on it, helping people network, making people aware that we do have that problem in our state.”
“We’re making people aware, getting them to care, and encouraging them to share,” she said.
According to Gordon, approximately one in six kids in Wyoming is either hungry or has food insecurity. Based on Wyoming’s population, that amounts to about 24,000 children in the state.
“So if that were a city in Wyoming, it would be the fifth largest, after Gillette,” she said.
Gordon said she was once unaware that hunger was a problem in Wyoming.
“I was naively thinking everybody was doing well, because the state looks great in a lot of respects,” she said. “But I ran into a friend in Sheridan who was buying food for Friday food bags to distribute in Sheridan County, and she told me they were doing over 500 food bags a week.
After I started going into other communities on the campaign trail, I found that almost every community in our state is doing some sort of Friday food bag program. They do about 900 in Laramie County every Friday.”
Since that discovery, the first lady has traveled to nearly every county in the state to check out the organizations that combat hunger. She visited the Food Group in Sheridan, the Wyoming Food for Thought Project in Casper and mobile food pantries in Gillette. She also helped pack backpacks at the Friday Food Bag Foundation in Cheyenne. The Friday Food Bag Foundation provides bags of nutritious, non-perishable food to students in Cheyenne and Pine Bluffs who otherwise might not have much to eat over the weekend.
The Wyoming Hunger Initiative has teamed up with the Wyoming Department of Education and the national No Kid Hungry campaign to promote in-school breakfast programs across the state.
“We were one of five states to receive a $50,000 grant from No Kid Hungry to promote breakfast at schools,” Gordon said. “With that, we went to New Orleans in June to the School Breakfast Institute, and we have a task force that came up a plan to address what’s called the ‘breakfast gap.’
“A lot of kids who qualify for free or reduced lunches also qualify for breakfast, but they’re not getting it for one reason or another; often times they’re the kid who is late to school and has already missed the opportunity to go into the cafeteria,” she continued. “And some kids just choose to play on the playground with their friends, even though they’re hungry, because they don’t want to miss that, and others just don’t want to be singled out.”
The “Breakfast After the Bell” program brings breakfast into the classrooms in Title I schools across the state. Children can choose to participate or not, but the food is offered to all of them.
The first lady described witnessing breakfast being served to kindergarteners at Cheyenne’s Afflerbach Elementary School recently and said she was impressed by how efficiently it was managed.
“There was not a lot of goofing around,” she said, recalling that the food was distributed in an orderly fashion and the teacher had given her students a task to complete as they ate.
“They were ready to learn,” Gordon said, “and there was a real feel of community.”
Ensuring children get a good breakfast is important, she said, because statistics show that kids who are fed are less likely to get sick and have disciplinary problems.
In addition to the No Kid Hungry grant, the Wyoming Hunger Initiative is funded in part by the Wyoming Governor’s Residence Foundation Board, a gift from the 2019 Inauguration Committee and funds raised at the 2019 First Lady’s Luncheon.
The board will continue to work to raise funds for the initiative that will be turned into grants available for organizations and school districts throughout Wyoming.
The website for the first lady’s initiative contains a list of all the programs throughout the state by regions so those who want to donate or volunteer — as well as people who need services — can see what’s available in their area.
The first lady also noted that the Wyoming 2-1-1 helpline and website provide anyone in need of any kind of service — be it help with housing, food or mental health services — with a referral to the appropriate agency.
Beyond the Wyoming Hunger Initiative, Gordon’s interests run the gamut from playing with her 10-month-old grandson Everett to military activities and anything having to do with the state’s agriculture industry.
Her interest in the agriculture industry is no surprise, coming from her background helping to run the Merlin Ranch with her husband.
Gordon returns to the ranch near Buffalo every month to check in.
“I go up about twice a month for a chunk of time to try to catch up,” she said. “I love my cows, so I get to see my girls.”