Bridging System Gaps to Fight Hunger

Grand Valley partners take big picture approach to addressing food insecurity.

Mesa County in Colorado’s Grand Valley is one of the state’s most successful agricultural regions, producing fruits and vegetables prized throughout the nation.  Yet in this land of plenty, a large percentage of local families are struggling with hunger and its related challenges. 

In this episode of CSU’s Community Voices series, learn how partners in Grand Valley are taking a big picture approach to addressing food insecurity in their communities.

Read More: Bridging System Gaps to Address Hunger

Apple crisp is on the menu for Grace Sonderman’s food tasting session at the Grand Junction Food Bank, but what she and other local partners are really cooking up is an innovative recipe for helping everyone in their western Colorado community succeed. 

Mesa County in Colorado’s Grand Valley is one of the state’s most successful agricultural regions, producing fruits and vegetables prized throughout the nation.  Yet in this land of plenty, a large percentage of local families are struggling with hunger and its related challenges. 

“The hard thing about Mesa County is that while food is grown here, a lot of people don’t actually have access to it, nor can they afford some of the food items that we currently have, which makes it very hard for people to access that food and use it to live a healthy lifestyle,” said Ann Duncan, CSU Area Extension Agent for Family and Consumer Science.

According to Feeding America, 14 percent of Mesa County residents – 20,500 individuals – lack consistent access to sufficient food for an active and healthy lifestyle.  Nearly half of Mesa County school children qualify for free and reduced lunches, with a number of elementary schools reporting more than 85% of students eligible.   

Such levels of hunger can have significant costs to individuals, families and communities as a whole.  People who are food insecure are more prone to health problems and are less productive as students and employees. Food insecurity can also translate into increased social problems, higher health care costs, and declines in school performance and workplace productivity.  

“It is ironic that we have food insecurity in a place that grows so much food,” said Amanda McQuade, Community Food Systems Coordinator at CSU’s Western Colorado Research Center.  “We are the leading producer in the state of fruit crops, our famous Palisade peaches and our sweet corn and olathe, but it’s still not enough to meet the demands of people, especially in the wintertime.” 

A System-Wide Approach to Fighting Hunger 

Leveraging a long-standing regional tradition of resilience and collaboration, Mesa County community partners began working as early as 2014 to address food insecurity needs, especially those faced by children and youth.  One key outcome of that partnership was the Mesa County Blueprint to End Hunger, a 2021 “call to action” outlining coordinated strategies to ensure that all people in Mesa County receive access to nutritious food that they need. 

“We took a system-wide approach to addressing food security,” McQuade said. “The blueprint takes the perspective of dealing with social determinants of health. How can not only we make sure that we provide food that people need, but we’re also wrapping more services around that effort?  Because often when people are struggling with food insecurity, they’re struggling with housing insecurity. They are not in a great place economically. They may be underemployed or dealing with health issues. The idea of the blueprint is not just to increase the amount of food, but to make sure we’re addressing all the systemic problems to address the larger picture.” 

A key player in Mesa County’s fight against hunger has been the Community Alliance for Education and Hunger Relief, a service and education program of Colorado State University and Mesa County. Since 2017, the Alliance has provided more than 2,100 tons of fresh crops from CSU’s research fields and orchards to local food pantries, schools and emergency meal programs. The Alliance also has provided public education about food, nutrition and hunger, as well as college internships focused on agriculture, food and security, STEM education and community-based nutrition. 

‘It’s Not Just About Food’ 

Although providing people with healthy food is a key goal, Duncan noted that Mesa County’s approach to food insecurity also stresses strategic client engagement, learning and close coordination of related human services. 

“Our program revolves around food access and consumption,” Duncan said. “But it’s also important to educate the community about how food is grown, how to access it and how to teach them the skills and knowledge they need to prepare it in a healthy manner. By working on each of these components, we can increase exposure to healthy foods and lead to behavior changes that will both impact an individual and a community’s health and resilience.” 

Grand Junction Food Bank Executive Director Alisha Wenger said there is a common misconception that food pantry clients are not interested in nutrition or nutritious foods. 

“The reality is, healthy foods are often out of their reach,” Wenger said.  “Everybody wants to be able to nourish themselves and nourish their family members so that everyone can thrive. So, if we can bring a little bit of extra information and really inspire people to eat more healthfully and to eat more fresh full foods, I think that’s incredibly impactful.” 

Building Connections, Over an Apple Crisp 

Intern Grace Sonderman’s Apple Crisp tasting session is one example of how Mesa County is working to encourage healthy food choices while also connecting clients with vital services. 

“We source produce, create a tasting of it and share samples with clients so that they can get some new ideas of how to cook things or maybe even try an unfamiliar ingredient that they’ve never had,” Sonderman said while chopping apples for the day’s session.  “It’s really important to physically get food into people’s hands and that’s a huge part of it, but we’re also addressing the underlying factors of food insecurity.” 

In tandem with Sonderman’s cooking class, Grand Junction Food Bank offered clients and their families access to a resource navigator who could help connect them with other local human services programs and community resources. 

“It really takes building that trust and that relationship to be able to make a soft welcome to the resource navigator, like a soft handover to say to people, ‘Hey, are you ready to take the possible next step of exploring SNAP benefits or exploring WIC or looking for some housing resources or tapping into some mental health resources?’” McQuade said.  “That resource navigator is there to make a broader solution and not just have it be about food.” 

McQuade stressed that, for many people, food insecurity is not a permanent situation – often driven by temporary economic or family circumstances that can rapidly change.  

“Our job as a system is to get people through that state as fast as we can, to help people get through that state into a more stable situation,” she said.  “That galvanizes people to be able to give back and to contribute to the system that helped them. That brings that level of dignity where you’re not always feeling like you’re the burden and you’re the recipient of help.” 

McQuade noted that an important success factor in the Mesa County program is its tightly coordinated, multidisciplinary community approach. 

 “It seems like there’s a lot of overlapping services, but we do it with intent and look to see what the needs are, who in the community is best positioned to meet those needs. That was one of the real triumphs, which was a group of organizations not just providing food but those providing housing and mental health services and governmental agencies to look at what the needs were and look at what our community assets were and start to put on a level of larger systemic thinking.” 

‘We Have a Mission’ 

Duncan and McQuade said they and their colleagues take pride in the role CSU has played in helping fight hunger, not only by providing fresh produce to food pantries throughout the region, but by also by developing expertise that can be shared with communities across Colorado and beyond. 

“As a land-grant college, we have a mission not only to generate knowledge and train people, and we pride ourselves on training people of all ages, but we also have the mission to serve our community,” McQuade said. 

“The work that we do here, between the Agricultural Experiment Station and Extension, bridges two different branches of the university,” Duncan said.  “Our future goal for this program would be to take the model we’ve created and replicate it at other food banks around Mesa County and beyond, so that we can increase food access to other communities.  Working out those kinks and taking that science-based information and putting it in simple concepts and actionable steps for other communities is where I’d like to see it in five years. And I think we’re getting there.”