With Thanksgiving dinner in the rearview mirror, many of us are still feasting on leftover turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce. It’s a luxury we rarely appreciate, yet for one third of Coloradans the ability to find nutritious food on a regular basis is hardly a given.

Food insecurity in America is far more widespread than most of us realize. In 2020, results from a Census Bureau survey showed 12% of adults in U.S. households now experience an inability to secure a steady source of food.

In households with children, this number rose to 16%, and the pandemic has almost certainly forced it higher.

Trish Zornio (Photo by Holly Hursley Photography)

It’s an embarrassing set of statistics for a nation that purports to be one of the best in the world, and the rate of hunger in America now appears to be higher than at any point since 1998 when tracking began.

In Colorado, hunger has reached an all-time high during the pandemic. According to Hunger Free Colorado, reports from early 2021 show 33% of Coloradans lack a reliable source of nutritious food, with 16% of children lacking adequate nutrition directly due to insufficient finances, and 20% of adults saying they regularly cut back on or skip meals entirely due to a lack of money.

When one in five Colorado adults aren’t eating a full three meals a day, that sure puts rolling your eyes at a 4-day-old green bean casserole in perspective.

Rates of food insecurity vary throughout the state. An assessment of 2019 data by the Colorado Health Institute revealed that on average rural areas were more heavily affected than urban areas, with a pre-pandemic data analysis showing 12% of rural Coloradans report food insecurity compared to 9.3% of urban Coloradans.

However, when applying the results based on the 21 Health Statistics Regions as defined by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, it varied widely between regional clusters, both rural and urban. 

For example, Colorado’s southeast region, HSR 6, consists of the eight counties south and east of Pueblo County. This rural region reached 18.07% for food insecurity, yet the similarly rural central east plains, HSR 5, just north averaged far less at 4.70%. Similarly, Pueblo County — which constitutes its own HSR — saw the highest rate in the state at 19.1%, while Douglas County — also an independent HSR — saw the lowest with 2.43%.

These gaps might be explained by other disparities revealed in the data. In addition to regional effects, food access was also found to be most challenging for those with lower incomes, young people between the ages of 19 and 29, urban women and communities of color, with the latter impact rising to 22.2% of Black Coloradans experiencing food insecurity. This is a rate three times higher than non-Hispanic white Coloradans in urban areas.

As food costs continue to rise, more individuals and families are expected to experience a challenge in accessing food. While policy changes are certainly necessary, any changes will take time before they can take effect. As the need is now, it’s on us as a community to help our fellow Coloradans get through the next year or more.

In speaking with several local food pantry operators, all expressed a sincere thankfulness for the increased donations during the holidays.

“It really does take everybody’s help to make this work. The need is out there, and the people who come to us really are your neighbors. Many have jobs, but the cost of living is too expensive and they need help,” said Ben Mensch, who serves as the Director of Operations at Harvest of Hope Pantry in Boulder.

Yet underneath the gratitude lay a stark reminder that people need to eat every day, not only on the holidays.

In Boulder, Mensch detailed how their pantry serves roughly 120 households every week, and another roughly 50 persons per day for those experiencing homelessness.

While the surplus in holiday donations will help last a little while, the need is clearly growing. “We’ll take whatever you’ve got,” he said, noting that among the most regularly needed items are canned pastas, soups and baked beans. 

Thanksgiving and Colorado Gives Day may only be one day of the year, but giving thanks for what we have should be a year round expression. Even if your donation is but one extra can of soup per week, you never know who’s life you might change.

Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado.

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Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado. Trish can be found on Twitter @trish_zornio