Many places in the American West are becoming food deserts, where it’s hard to get healthy food. Sometimes that’s because people can’t afford it or because it means driving long distances. And for really isolated places, sometimes it’s because of both. Now, a group of ladies in Wyoming’s struggling coal country are working on a plan to solve hunger there.
[ ↓ Transcript ↓ ]
Back in episode five of The Modern West, “Gabby’s Story,” we met Tina Maddux, who started a nonprofit called Restorative Resources Programming House. When it comes to helping people in this community, Tina has her finger in all the pies. One of the biggest issues she’s fighting is food insecurity. A few years back, the company went bankrupt and Walden’s one and only grocery shut down. For a couple of years, people had to drive an hour over a mountain pass to get their food. A new company bought the chain and re-opened Walden’s grocery. But it’s a pretty small store, and expensive So every other Tuesday when the food truck comes, there’s a long line like the one out there today.
It’s a beautiful sunny day and, for once, not too windy. My mom and I drive up onto the ridge overlooking the town of Walden. As a kid, I remember coming up here every summer for the fair and the rodeo. It’s a 360-degree view up here, and today the mountains are dusted with autumn snow. We’re out here for the weekly food delivery. Driving in, we pass a long line of parked cars, people sitting behind the wheel. They’ve been parked here for over an hour. We get out and join the volunteers waiting for the truck to arrive. Right off the bat, it shows up and the volunteers kick into high gear.
Tina said before the pandemic, people came inside the building and assembled their own boxes of food but not anymore.
“We build the boxes, they will drive through—you see my lineup out there—and then we do a drive-thru model. They drive through, we load all of the things that are pre-boxed into their cars for them,” she said. “So today, we have been averaging about 150 families a month. When you do the math on this, we are feeding anywhere from three-quarters to two-thirds of this community every month through our feeding programs.
“We are known as a food desert. We are one of the true food deserts in the entire state,” Tina said.
Lots of places in the American West are quickly becoming food deserts. That’s a place where people have a hard time getting reliable, healthy food. Sometimes it’s because they can’t afford that kind of food. Other times they have to travel long distances to get to that food. Sometimes, like for Walden, it’s because of both.
Food insecurity is not just happening to invisible people you’ll never know. I lived with the realities of a food desert for years. My parents still do. And so does Kathy Romack, a friend of mine from Walden. I remember when I met Kathy back in the early 1990s when I was helping run my parents’ hunting and fishing camp.
This crazy couple wandering in the door. They looked like they’d stepped out of some bygone era. Tattered cowboy hats, his droopy mustache. A handsome couple. Kathy had beautiful red flowing hair back then.
“My late husband, John, wanted to put hay up with horses. And they were doing it at the Stevens Brothers’ ranch in Rand. So we got out of the city, weaned ourselves off of money and came to North Park,” Kathy said.
They also moved to North Park because John was a trapper. Kathy made things with the furs.
“I used to sell moccasins, and then hats and I don’t know, lots of things. Then my neck told me I couldn’t do that anymore,” he said.
John grew up near Colorado Springs and loved trapping, even as a kid.
“They used to let him on the school bus with his shotgun. because he’d get off and trap, check his traps on his way home,” Kathy said. “He was into ranching, he was more of a person that liked to be by himself. So he brought me up here because of that. And then in 1996, Denver got to make a decision on trapping, which they weren’t educated to do. And it really kind of devastated that for John. And so he just took his own life that year,” Kathy said.
But Kathy decided to stay in North Park after his death.
“The people, when he died, were incredible. They made me feel loved,” she said.
One of the ways they showed her love was by feeding her.
“We worked closely with the Division of Wildlife. Somebody had poached a moose. So it got packaged and froze, and they backed up to my door and unloaded it. It was just like, wow, what a blessing. Moose is good,” she said.
North Parkers are proud of that kind of self-sufficiency, Kathy added.
“A couple years ago, a bunch of antelope got hit during a snowstorm and a lot of people got that meat too. It’s good. You don’t starve in North Park. We got plenty of meat. We just need veggies,” she said.
When the grocery shut down, fresh produce became even more elusive. But Kathy said, true to form, North Parkers made do.
“There was a short time there that we had to do some entrepreneurial stuff. When Rosa opened up and sold us some good produce. And then Nick opened up the meat shop. Some people that worked in Steamboat would bring food home for certain people. One of the things that is done still today, is, ‘Well, is anybody going to Laramie? Is anybody going to Steamboat? Because would you get this for me?’” she said.
Not long after the grocery closed, a Family Dollar store opened on Main Street. But Kathy said, they only sell processed food with no fruits or veggies.
Getting fresh produce, it’s the hardest thing for rural shoppers in the American West. Not that far from Walden, there’s an effort to get those fruits and veggies in people’s fridges, people like Kathy Romack.
But there are people who are trying to come up with solutions to that issue.
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A New Way
In Gillette, Wyoming, Megan Taylor and Erin Galloway’s office is just a cinderblock room in the Boys and Girls Club.
At the beginning of summer, the office was stacked full with boxes of mac and cheese, apples, and ready-to-prepare meals to hand out to kids throughout the county who need extra food over the weekend to get by.
By late August, their once pre-packaged kingdom was nearly empty.
Megan and Erin are the cofounders of the Edible Prairie Project. It’s a non-profit that addresses food insecurity. But their focus isn’t really on those weekend food bags or just boxes of ready-to-eat meals which are pretty standard among anti-hunger organizations these days.
They have a bigger goal. Megan said they want to create a food system that serves everyone equally.
“We just started to notice certain issues cropping up for our community, especially when it came to the availability and accessibility of local food,” Megan said. “We knew we wanted a way to work on that. And that’s kind of how EPP was formed.”
They wanted to add to what was already there.
“So while there are several organizations providing local food in Campbell County, where else was there gaps? And how could we help plug some holes and then also reach into more of our low-income residents and provide another way for them?” Erin said. “Because across the country, farmers markets are seen as boutique and luxury things that are not necessarily very accessible to low-income families and residents.”
The Edible Prairie Project does a lot of things and they have a lot of goals, including restructuring the entire food system and remodeling it with a local focus. But just like them, I’ll start small.
On this particular Monday in late August, Megan was running around the office trying to get everything settled for their main focus—baskets filled with veggies from local farmers and producers.
She started going through all the veggies that local farmers have dropped off. There was the first round of tomato harvests, lots of peppers, and a surprise eggplant. Megan then started to sort pickling cucumbers into paper sacks.
She laid out their laundry baskets they use to store each bundle ahead of pick-up outside of their office and carefully set each serving of veggies in—besides the tomatoes. Folks get to chose those for themselves.
Edible Prairie Project not only makes these baskets for people who pay for the service but also they accept WIC or SNAP benefits, meaning low-income people have access to the same baskets full of local produce anyone who pays full price is getting. And with a grant in response to the pandemic, these SNAP and WIC customers were able to get them for free.
Creating access may be one of the biggest parts of the Edible Prairie Project’s mission. And it’s with good reason.
Campbell County is right in the middle of northeast Wyoming. Its border runs all the way to Montana. Gillette is its biggest city with about 32,000 people. But the county is full of smaller communities, like Rozet and Recluse that don’t have grocery stores, and many rural people rely on coming into Gillette, especially to stock up or save money.
In Gillette, there are grocery stores and services to make sure that people get food, like the Council of Community Services. Its food pantry serves nearly 2,000 families.
Even though Gillette itself isn’t exactly a food desert, it doesn’t have public transportation and it’s not a walkable city at all. So if you’re living paycheck-to-paycheck and it’s between your monthly car and rent payments or grocery money, it’s not going to the groceries. And then add on all the issues that could cause if you live 50 miles from town.
Campbell County is quite well known for being a “rich” county government in Wyoming with the ability to provide a lot of services. It’s the center of Wyoming’s coal industry, which has plenty of good-paying jobs with not a lot of formal education required. But that’s changing as the community feels the impacts of mine closures, bankrupt companies, more shutdowns and downturns. Gillette’s at risk of losing everything that built it.
And the reverberations are felt by the smaller communities too. Take Moorcroft, for example. It has just over a thousand people, and it’s 30 minutes east of Gillette in a neighboring county.
It’s the place you drive through going to visit another. You make a couple of left turns in town as you visit Devil’s Tower if you’re coming from the east like I am. But there’s not much to look at or going on. It’s right on the bank of the Belle Fourche River and used to be a ranching community.
Lots of the people who live in Moorcroft work in the coal or oil industry and commute back and forth, so it’s ghost towning, too. It has one grocery store and a new dollar store. People will sometimes head to the surrounding areas like Gillette, Casper, or even Rapid City, South Dakota, if they think they can save money.
Monte Reichenberg is the pastor at First Presbyterian Church and works with the town’s interfaith community food pantry. I see him posting at least a couple of times a month in the town’s Facebook group about times and location for food pantries.
“The last couple of years in different areas, we’ve had some very devastating hail storms that destroyed the gardens that a lot of people depend on to feed off of through the fall in the winter,” Reichenberg said. “This year, and with the interruption in the transportation, and the shortages and food supplies, and the stores and things it’s just kind of kept compounding.”
He said they are seeing more and more families use the local and mobile food pantries that visit small towns.
“Now because the extra unemployment things that the government was doing are falling away, and the people have gone through their savings. So we have families come every month that are saying we tried, but we’re running out of money. So we’re starting to look for help,” Reichenberg said.
Access, or a lack thereof, is a huge factor of food insecurity for people and places like this. But so is quality.
Christine Porter, an associate professor of community and public health at the University of Wyoming, studies the food system for a living. She knows all about how hunger works in small towns around the American West.
“It’s not just a shortage of food. In the United States, people don’t generally starve for lack of food, but they will be malnutritioned and are under-nutritioned and live under great chronic stress of being unsure if they’ll have enough or enough of the right kinds of food. They might have ramen, but they don’t have salad or apples,” Porter said.
According to Feeding America, people in rural areas frequently face the problem of food insecurity at a higher rate compared to their urban counterparts. Sixty-three percent of all counties in America are rural but they make up nearly 90 percent of counties with the highest rates of food insecurity.
“Being food insecure is devastating. Even the uncertainty—even if you end up having enough and no one’s actually hungry, it is truly devastating and much more so for children. And then also the knock-on effects for a parent who feels like they can’t provide for their child,” Christine said.
“We rediscover this problem every 10 years about how severe and deep and wide our poverty and food insecurity is in the United States. Because we treat it as if people should be ashamed of it, and there’s a huge stigma attached to it. So they hide it and that makes it even harder to solve,” she added.
Like Kathy Romack back in Walden. She’s noticed that shame. She said she’s felt a stigma about going to the food pantry.
“But then there’s some people that really don’t need it. You know, they have plenty of money. But a lot of people in Walden don’t have very good incomes. Most of them I think are probably on a fixed income. I am. I do have one side job. But I don’t have enough to go buy all my groceries, I guess,” she said.
But Kathy is a musician and once organized a local cowboy poetry gathering. That’s where I first hung out with her. So she’s not shy. So when the food truck started to come to town, she went and checked it out.
“I jumped in there after I saw what they were getting there. We’re getting some good stuff. You know, like, turkeys in this last batch, we got real butter and eggs and cheese and yogurt. Lots of grapefruits. Apples! They have been giving us those green apples and, boy, do they make good apple pie,” she said.
Kathy likes making things out of nothing, like she did with her husband’s furs. So when she gets those free food boxes, she makes them stretch. She’s been juicing the ruby red grapefruits and making her own bone broth out of the turkey bones.
But if Kathy lived in Gillette, she might not have to feel that stigma because of Edible Prairie Project. That’s because they’re committed to making sure that people who are low-income get the exact same customer service, produce and opportunities as anyone who can easily afford it.
Most of the food we see at the typical grocery store chain is shipped in. In the rural West, that can mean much longer distances. And if you’re in a smaller town or a hard to reach area, trucking your food in is the only option but can also get harder and harder to sustain, especially for a chain serving a small population. That’s what it’s like living in Northeast Wyoming. There isn’t close to enough local food to supply everyone, especially at a price everyone can afford.
But relying on food to be trucked in isn’t working anywhere, let alone rural places.
Think back to February, March, April. If the pandemic is teaching us anything, it’s that everything we might think is fine is 100 percent not fine.
Stores were running out of stock in almost everything across the country, no matter the community as people began to panic-buy and prepare for lockdowns.
It might have seemed like our entire food system had just started falling apart. But in truth, it didn’t just fall apart. It’s been a black hole of doom for a long, long time.
The videos of hundreds of people waiting in cars to receive boxes of food flooded social media and the evening news. The pandemic shone a bright light on how deeply entrenched food insecurity is in our country.
Christine Porter, the professor, said our current food system is so large and so dependent on major companies, that it’s harder for it to be agile. That means if something unexpected happens, the whole thing goes crashing down. But having more, smaller local food systems can make us more adaptable in crises.
A Band-Aid While Growing
While Erin and Megan of Edible Prairie Project could talk for hours about their dreams of solving these problems, they know they are on step negative-five of one million. Multiple times throughout our conversations, they admit they haven’t figured out everything, or even close to everything.
“We have to feed kids that are hungry and there’s no questions about that, like kids need to have food. And so we work within the system that we have access to and that is largely processed prepackaged food, and we’ll work on growing our local food base so that we can put local food items into those bags. Well, that will take years,” Erin said. “We don’t want to sit and wait and say well, ‘we can’t do it perfectly.’ We say we want to put a Band-Aid on the situation. Let’s do the best that we can right now and work towards the end goal.”
So they ask their customers questions. They want to know if having access to these food items changes people’s fruit and vegetable consumption. They’re studying it. And just guess who they’re working with on it. Christine Porter.
Christine said she did a version of the research project with another group in Wyoming, though it was smaller and structured a little differently. But it showed some promising results.
“That showed dramatic improvements in both fruit and vegetable consumption and food security, both for the people who only got fruit and vegetable coupons and for the people who got grocery coupons,” she said.
The final analysis won’t be ready for a while.
But in the meantime, Edible Prairie Project is just working on more of the baby steps of tackling the real issue.
To The Farm
“Don’t touch the red and white wire because it is an electric fence! We’re trying to keep the deer out though we aren’t being entirely successful, Erin said as we entered her garden.
It’s cold and overcast in August. I’m walking around with the farmer and co-founder of Edible Prairie Project, Erin Galloway. Erin and her husband, Mike, own this farm and ranch just south of Gillette, Wyoming.
“You can see the grasshopper damage on the turnips…then that’s also the flea beetle damage we talked about. It’s just a tiny black beetle. That’s how you can tell we used minimal pesticides because there’s still damage. And the beet greens you can see the grasshoppers. You can tell what they like to snack on. It’s been a constant struggle this year’s been tough with bugs,” she said.
Just the act of growing food in Northeast Wyoming can be difficult. Erin would know. She has two high tunnels, which are kind of like greenhouses, for growing all sorts of seasonal crops, plus the uncovered garden.
“I personally have been market farming for about 10 years now and I wouldn’t say I’ve seen it all because like every year presents new challenges,” she said.
There’s the early spring heat that can ruin a lettuce crop. The late frost. And then the wind. Wyoming is famous for it.
“The nonstop 40-mile-an-hour winds. You would never think that wind would be such an issue in farming, but you can’t put a tender broccoli transplant outside when the winds gonna blow 40 miles an hour. And then all of a sudden we had days where it was 90 degrees or 80 degrees, and record high temperatures are happening. And again the wind is blowing, and then the rain quits and so now we have drought,” Erin said.
Throw in some massive hail storms and you’ve got Northeast Wyoming in a nutshell.
But Erin can’t grow enough crops to supply Edible Prairie Projects needs. It’s unsustainable. So they are also building an army of local producers and farmers. They purchase from farmers who are beginners, women, people of color, and veterans, basically what the U.S. Department of Agriculture identifies as historically disadvantaged farmers. And that’s who they are focusing on. Because the barrier of entry is so tough, they’re doing what they can to help out.
“So this winter, especially, we’re gonna spend time like how big is your plot size? Which way is it oriented? How can we maximize productivity? How long can your rows be? Let’s map out your beds. This crop goes well with this crop and just work with them to what is there What’s their comfort level? And where are they struggling? And how can we how can we help that?” Erin said.
By sharing her knowledge and working with these new farmers, Erin is able to build a community that will support itself and slowly create a bigger and bigger lake that they can fish out of.
“It’s a tiny snowball, but it’s when I started in local food 10 years ago, selling at a farmers market to where we are now. We’ve gained so much momentum and it’s nowhere near where we need to be, but like it is, we’re very much on our way to a better food system,” she said.
As Christine will tell you and Megan and Erin know well enough, food insecurity is a problem, it’s not actually the problem. It’s a symptom of much larger issues, and solving it will take some massive changes.
And no one person, non-profit, government agency, or well-meaning school lunch program can solve it.
Farmers markets and producing and selling local food do help. They help stimulate the economy.
But to get to fixing our food system, we have to acknowledge what the real problem behind food insecurity is.
“I would say food insecurity in the United States has two main causes. One is poverty and our willingness to accept poverty, and two is our lack of interest in redistributing the food and resources we have to make up for that gap,” Christine said.
Christine said so far, she thinks not-for-profit groups like Edible Prairie Project are making the most strides in addressing poverty and food insecurity together. And local organizations most often know the best ways to address these issues in communities.
Local people are the ones who know best. Kathy’s intuition tells her that Walden’s solutions are right before their eyes.
“If North Park started providing its own produce, like through greenhouses. That would be wonderful. I wish the school, which has a greenhouse and which teaches kids to grow bedding plants for the spring, but get into more depth to teaching them how to well just how about… let’s make some money growing produce, teach them how to make money growing produce. That sounds like a good plan,” she said. “Don’t you think?”
It might sound like a pipe dream, trying to feed people with food grown in a valley that’s 8,000 feet in elevation but Kathy and my family, we’ve all done it.
“The root vegetables grow great, you know, and peas will do well, anything that’s cold climate. Lettuce really does good. Oh, and raspberries. Ooh. Yes. I remember your dad tried to dig up some of my raspberries and they were so hard, he couldn’t get them out of the ground,” she laughed.
“[The] the best place I’ve ever grown carrots is North Park. And they’re so easy. Really, as long as you can keep your cat out of them,” Kathy added.
Kathy likes the idea of getting veggies in her weekly food box grown from nearby places like Middle Park where there’s several local farms. She said local ranchers already put meat in there like ham and beef.
“It builds jobs and it builds community resilience, builds resilience of our food systems, resilience of our communities in making it easier to feed everybody. A community can do a lot by themselves, including a lot of exciting innovative grocery store models where a community-run grocery store that works without even staffing, right, but that provides access to that community. There are solutions communities can come up with but it would help a lot if the state was behind it and provided models and policy supports and sometimes financial support just to get something started. It’s one of the most promising areas in which we could invest ways to diversify our economy,” Christine said.
Edible Prairie is also trying to close other gaps through the baskets. They include a newsletter that highlights the farmers who produced these items to build stronger farmer-food-consumer relationships. They also offer garden baskets so folks can plant their own harvest.
“We’ve also provided some basic kitchen essentials to our SNAP and WIC protest participants. So, this spring they got a salad spinner because we do a lot of greens in the spring. And then in the summer, they received a cutting board and a knife set. So those basic utensils can also somewhat be a barrier to preparing fresh food processing or using a box-processed meal in your home is a lot different than working with a fresh vegetable,” Erin said.
Providing those items is one of the most important things Edible Prairie Project could be doing, Christine said.
“It’s like the metaphor of you teach a man to fish. You teach them and they’ll eat for a lifetime and that is not true, because the knowledge of how to fish is not enough. You need a boat. You need clean water, you have to fish in the sea, you have to have the skills to catch it. But you education is not enough. You literally have to have the tools and the environment and the access in order to eat for a lifetime,” she said.
“It’s the solving. It’s not managing poverty, but ending it. Not managing hunger, but ending it,” Christine said.
So I asked Christine, what she would do? How would she change this whole thing?
“I would like to reimagine a food system where every job pays a living wage, including growing food and harvesting food and selling the food and processing food and serving food should all earn a living wage. that they don’t need subsidies from the federal government to have a roof over their head and health care and to be able to afford the real price,” she said.
Yeah, the dreams are big. But that’s not the starting point. That’s step one million. It isn’t just on farmers, nonprofits and government agencies to fix this. It will take a collective shift of everyone—like you and me.
“You’re not a passive actor. You’ve got purchasing power, you’ve got the ability to change the food system and build the food system that you want. Everybody can take ownership of their role in the food system, because we’re all a part of it. And I think just realizing that it’s not just the farmers, it’s all of us,” Megan said.
Ghost Town(ing) episode art by John McNamis
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