By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily
Before Jennie Gordon became Wyoming’s First Lady, she had a transformative experience during a conversation with a friend while grocery shopping.
“About seven years ago, I ran into a friend who was shopping in Albertsons, and she had two carts full,” Gordon said, explaining that she was curious the abnormally large amount of food her friend was buying.
“Well, I’m doing Friday Food Bags,” Gordon’s friend told her. “‘We pack up food for kids that can’t quite get through the weekend because there’s no food in their home.’”
“And I said, ‘Oh, how many kids are you doing?’ She said, ‘500,’ Gordon said. “And my jaw just hit the floor. And I said, ‘How can I help?’”
A few years later, Jennie Gordon was able to make good on that offer, when her husband, Mark, was elected governor of Wyoming. Once she became the state’s First Lady, Gordon launched the Wyoming Hunger Initiative, a program that allows for increased collaboration and community participation in the fight against childhood hunger.
According to the project’s website, one in five children in the state struggles with food insecurity – the uncertainty of where and when they might get their next meal. That’s 23,500 children right here in Wyoming.
“We are in all 23 counties,” Gordon told Cowboy State Daily on Friday. “We really just support programs that are already in existence around the state that fight food insecurity. We are working with children’s groups, with veterans groups, seniors groups and just families and pantries that are serving folks that are struggling during this time.”
Gordon was in Cody on Friday to meet with representatives of Park County food banks and checking in with organizations that have either benefited from grants facilitated by the Hunger Initiative or which collaborate with the agency to feed Wyoming families in need.
Gordon said that just last week, the Hunger Initiative distributed $110,000 to food banks around Wyoming – money that does not come from state coffers, but from private donations.
“We accept no state or federal funding, but we have individual donors, corporate donors, and then there are some family foundations that have donated to the Hunger Initiative,” she said, “because they’re not sure which organizations to support, and they know we support the entire state.”
Audrey Schein and her husband, Dan, lead the crew of volunteers that runs the Cody Cupboard, which provides food to around 120 needy families and individuals in Park County each month, around 400 people, according to Schein.
“They can come into the cupboard and shop from the items that we have here, proteins, vegetables when they’re in season, and other non-perishable items that they can take home for their family,” she said.
Schein added that in addition to allowing families and individuals to stock up from the Cupboard’s shelves, funding from the Initiative allows clients to purchase items that they don’t keep on-site.
“We received a donation from the Initiative for breakfast items,” Schein noted. “And we provide vouchers for our clients to obtain bread, milk and eggs, and things like that.”
For food pantries like the Cody Cupboard, the funding from the Hunger Initiative allows them to make capital purchases which local donations just wouldn’t cover.
“We were able to secure grants to obtain new refrigeration and freezer equipment to keep our perishable items fresh for all of our clients who come to visit the cupboard,” Schein said. “Plus, we’ve also received other grants from the Hunger Initiative that allowed us to provide food to our clients.”
Schein said without the services provided by the Cody Cupboard, many people in Cody would go hungry.
“It’s the difference between making it to the end of the month for seniors, for young families,” she said. “With prices increasing, the choice between rent and utilities and health care expenses and food, make some families and seniors have to make some difficult choices.”
Gordon said that funding is the number one resource that the Hunger Initiative provides to food pantries – from there, the individual organizations can secure the needed items from a variety of sources, including the Food Bank of the Rockies, local grocery stores, and some meat-processing facilities. But donations from local citizens help to fill the gaps.
“If you have any non-perishable foods that are easy to store and not expired, they are happy to take them,” Gordon said, “As well as farmers or ranchers that may have an animal that they want to donate. And the Hunger Initiative can help by paying for the processing, if it’s state or USDA inspected.”
Gordon said that supply chain issues and other COVID-related difficulties have made it harder for food banks to keep up with demand.
“At first, there were a lot of people who wanted to donate,” Gordon said, regarding the onset of the pandemic. “But now what we’re seeing is people, they’re back to work. But maybe they’re stretched now because they don’t have any extra.”
Gordon said that donations have declined all over the state in recent months, while the need remains high.
“We just wrote another grant, actually, we’re hoping to get it today,” she said. “And then we’ll do some more replenishment money throughout the state (to purchase food for the pantries).”
Gordon stressed, however, that it’s neighbors helping neighbors that makes the biggest difference.
“Every county and every community knows how to serve their people best,” she said. “Some people do feedings where they cook for the community, some people have pantries, Boys and Girls Clubs feed some people, grow gardens, and feed with the produce. So it’s just really, all hands on deck, and different ways to approach the problem.”
Gordon said, from her perspective, the Hunger Initiative has created an opportunity for Wyoming people to help one another.
“Get on the website, nohungerwyo.org and click on your county so you can see which organizations are feeding people. Call them up, see if you can either volunteer or donate to them and just get involved because you know, Wyoming has great neighbors and we all want to help people in need.”