As visitors dole out thousands of dollars in Aspen this weekend to experience the creme de la creme of food and beverage, there are people in the valley who work to stretch $20 for an entire week of food.
Hunger through my lens is a collaboration of Pitkin County Health and Human Services, and nonprofits Hunger Free Colorado and the Aspen Community Foundation. Residents experiencing food insecurity were taught photography and given cameras to document what hunger looks like for them. Last week, the culmination of the project was celebrated with a display of participants’ photos at the El Jebel community center.
Karen D’Attilo’s photo is of homegrown produce, arranged into the shape of a heart. Instead of throwing away a potato that had gone to seed she planted it in a wheelbarrow.
“I had 30 pounds of incredible organic potatoes, it was amazing,” she said.
The Roaring Fork Valley has the most under-utilized hunger assistance programs in the state. The county’s health and human services deputy director, Mitzi Ledingham, said the photo project is a step toward gaining insight into the problem on a local level.
“What does it mean to be food insecure in Pitkin County?,” she asked. “We believe that people are but what is the nature of it and what keeps them from wanting to use a public program to help them?”
The eight-page application for food stamps is one deterrent. Supplemental documentation is also required regarding family size, income and other bills, as well as an in-person interview. These elements are further complicated if applicants are illiterate or don’t have access to transportation. And after all that trouble, average financial assistance is a $1.50 per meal.
Kathy Underhill is the executive director of Hunger Free Colorado, and has struggled for food assistance herself in the past. She said calling food stamps an entitlement program misrepresents the lengths people go to to secure assistance.
“When you are filling out forms and answering questions and kind of laying out your life to a stranger, I can tell you that the last thing you feel is entitled,” she said. “It is the most humbling of experiences.”
Participant Aaron Rogers and her family did fill out the forms, but were denied assistance. The cost of living in this region is not taken into account and so the income reported by her husband was deemed too high. Yet, his chef’s salary doesn't cover the cost of living and food for their four boys. Last fall, when facing an exponential rent hike in Carbondale, Rogers and her family were forced to choose between housing and food. They chose food. Her photos show her sons in front of the van they lived out of as a family.
“When you are poor it’s like you are ‘less than’ but poor people are not bad with money,” said Rogers. “I would go to people and say ‘I need help. I can’t manage our money’ and it was like ‘no actually, you just don't have any.’”
In Colorado, hunger hits children hardest. One of Rogers’ photos of her sons was especially moving to Ledingham.
“The one of the kids around the empty table, saying this is what's it’s like when you don’t know what’s for dinner,” Ledingham said. “It’s a great illustration of ‘hey, what if you were in your house and your parents hadn't prepared any food and you are six years old?’ What are you supposed to do?”
Children under 5 years old are the demographic with the highest chance of being in a hungry household. Underhill pointed out that even impoverished kids who are fed regularly tend to be unhealthy because high-calorie processed foods are cheaper.
“We see obesity and malnutrition exist in the same child,” she said. “If you have iron deficiency and anemia, which is shockingly common, you’re talking about lost IQ points that you can never get back no matter what the future interventions are.”
Underhill said hunger should not exist in 2016, and that there are solutions out there for feeding all Coloradans. There just isn’t the leadership needed to get it done. Locally, Rogers and her husband have started a catering company and set up a food truck at the Basalt farmers’ market. Connecting area ranchers directly to consumers cuts out packaging and distribution costs, and hopefully makes eating healthy that much cheaper for families like hers who are in need.