Food for Thought Denver: Food Access and Child Poverty

Imagine growing up in North Denver. You have lived well enough on your own; from the start your family has always been able to provide you with food on your table and a roof over your head. But you know there are many others who aren’t as lucky as you are. The city is booming just as any other big city but this only lengthens the class divisions.

Through your rotary club you provide about sixty local kids with meals who you know are in need with the resources you have. But one night you’re having a conversation with one of your old friends. She’s a teacher at a school in a nearby low-income neighborhood. And she’s telling you how many, if not all, of her students are having their last meal at the school lunch of Friday until they get back for the school lunch on Monday. This is shocking news – you knew of the situation but could not imagine that it was nearly this bad. Then you decide “these kids have nothing but it is fixable.” This is the story of Bob Bell – the founder of the organization, Food for Thought Denver. His story is one of today’s harsh reality of food inaccessibility and child poverty in Denver; and how one organization is changing the game.

In this day in age, a conversation revolving around the politics of food can drag on for a good while. The struggles between the global North and the global South, advances in neocolonialism through trade policies, and unfair working conditions or wages are only some of the issues within our global food system. Big American food corporations in itself contribute to the majority of food production and consumption problems.

Now, taking a look at the local level within the Denver community and the middle-class access to a variety of food:

Denver is one of the fastest growing cities in the US as of 2018 (Sevits, 2018) and the food system accounts for $7 billion of Denver’s economic activity (Angelo and Goldstein, 2016).

But what these statistics do not account for is the overwhelming poverty residing in Denver where 49% of low to moderate-income Denver neighborhoods lack convenient access to grocery stores (Angelo and Goldstein, 2016). In addition, 1 in 4 Colorado families do not have enough food to meet basic needs (Food for Thought). Because of this reality, organizations like Food for Thought Denver have been created in order to provide healthy meals for kids and families in need. 

Food for Thought

 Food for Thought (FFT) is an organization which is entirely made up of volunteers who use donations to create Power Sacks (bags with a variety of food items). The volunteers then give these Power Sacks to children in low-income neighborhoods through their schools every other weekend. This organization is the one I will be talking about throughout my paper as the nonprofit takes a defiant stance against the food system and economy of Denver and attempts to reverse some of the damage done. Through my interview with the founder of FFT, the information on the website and other related data I will examine how the organization is making widespread change in this community and how great the need is for nonprofits such as this. But before getting into FFT, there are particular dynamics which need to be understood about food access and child poverty in Denver

A good step forward in Denver’s policies has been the implementation of Title 1 in 2012. This policy has allowed kids from households making under $26,000 a year to receive free and reduced lunches at school (Food for Thought). As the implementation of Title 1 actually coincides with the start of the organization, so-called “Title 1 schools” are actually the target of FFT. Title 1 schools are where 90% or more of the students are receiving free and reduced lunches. So far, the organization has reached 37 of these schools. But as this is still less than half of the Title 1 schools in Denver, Bell’s most pressing goal for the organization now is to be able to provide for all of the Title 1 schools in the area.

The founder, Bell, rightfully prides himself that the organization gives every child at these schools two bags of food every other week. Whereas other food aid organizations attempting to make a profit would send a form home with the kids through the schools asking the parents if they need food supply, this is often insufficient because the form may never actually reach the parents or the parents’ pride may interfere with asking for help. Because of this, Bell says possibly the single most important attribute of FFT is that they are not select. Every child at each school FFT is in contact with will get a Power Sack. Therefore, if a child does not need the Power Sack, they can simply give theirs to another child in need.

Like Bell said in our interview, for us middle-class folks in Denver we often drive past the impoverished neighborhoods and think nothing of it. Bell, having grown up in North Denver, referenced this idea of how the middle class view the poor as an eyesore or even choose to ignore them altogether. Many upper-class people may go so far as to say the poor only have themselves to blame as we are so often fed misleading information from the media about poverty itself (Mantsios, n.d.). This may be why when the organization was first starting, it received some initial negative backlash asking if FFT was really necessary. In reality, organizations like this are the only way to counteract the lack of acknowledgement towards Denver’s poverty.

As Denver’s economy is growing day by day it is inhumane for us to ignore this major part of the population who are struggling to simply access any food.

Health Side

Going in to the health side of food access, I wanted to acknowledge first that my interview with Bell did not go too much into what types of foods are given to the children each week. At FFT the food is purchased by the donations at the Food Bank of the Rockies and each week two mom volunteers purchase the food online. All of the food is nonperishable ranging from granola bars to dinner pasta. As FFT does not have an indoor location, perishable food is simply not realistic. But from the pictures on the FFT website, the foods generally look as natural as packaged foods can be.

For instance, Larabars were shown in one picture which are completely natural food bars often with only two or three ingredients such as dates and cashews.  But because my interview was not with the mothers who purchase the food each week, I am unsure of the exact types of foods or food brands which are generally given to the kids each week. I could not say what priorities these women have in choosing the food, only that they have the priority of making each bag contain fifteen items worth $4 of food.

Talking specifically about children’s diets, the sugar and additive intake is exceptionally high in today’s society. Generally speaking we all become hooked on sugar at an early age in America which transcends into our adulthood where we continue to consume just as much sugar. In one study, it was found that children are consuming more artificial food dyes and added sugars than thought before. The main sources for the dyes and added sugar are beverages and the most popular candies.

An interesting fact as well from the study, is that the most mainstream foods such as M&Ms and McDonald’s strawberry shakes are naturally dyed in the UK but not in the US (Stevens et al, 2015). Therefore, if health was really a priority in the US by our policymakers we would be at the same standards of the UK. This fact demonstrates a whole different problem with American authorities’ prioritization of foods and abundant advertisements for unhealthy foods that I will not go into now. However, it is important to keep in mind when examining food access that we, and especially lower-income families, are not given the best opportunities to acquire healthy, quality food.

Power of Community

Now, knowing all of the information I have presented, there are many factors which play into FFT being a necessity in Denver and how it has impacted the community. Perhaps one of the most incredible things about this organization is that it is 100% volunteer-based. Everyone involved is not being paid and every single cent of the donations goes towards providing the meals for the children. The organization gathers the food either from private donations or grants.

When I asked Bell if it is difficult to spend so much time on the project and not make any profit, he said, “Of course it would be easier if the people got paid, but it’s not about being easy – it’s about being effective.” He went on to say that we wouldn’t feel right asking donors for money if not all of it went to the kids. This is one of the major differences of FFT which makes them stand out from other food aid organizations. Bell said he’s just trying to “give back.”

But throughout our interview the main point Bell kept insisting on is the power of the community. During each school year since 2012, “rain or shine” every Friday the volunteers have met up to package the food together and get the bags ready for the kids. Up to 100 volunteers show up every Friday to prepare the food and it all goes home to the community that night.

A majority of these people are random, all coming to help by word of mouth. But some of the volunteers are actually from the companies who sponsor the organization. Bell says that in addition to asking for grants, FFT asks for any help on the physical labor side they can get as well. In order to carry out the tasks each Friday, they need trucks and people willing to do a lot of heavy-lifting for all of the packages of food.

Despite the difficulty in getting the necessary resources, the organization will do whatever it takes to not let the kids down each week. These families throughout the 37 elementary to high schools depend greatly on these Power Sacks. The two bags given are meant to aid in supporting a family of four for one to two weeks. Bell said when he comes into each school he feels like Santa Claus with the kids so excited to see what’s in the bags that week and see the love the community has for them. Even the parents will come up to Bell, he said, and they’ll thank him and make sure he is bringing them next week too. The dependency these families have on this organization is very real. Without FFT the families are given so much more food than they would likely be able to access on their own.  

The Impact

But when asked of his favorite memory, Bell said that his most impactful memories are the saddest. It’s the memories of him sitting down to talk with the teachers of a Title 1 school and telling them what FFT is doing for the Denver community. And it’s when he finishes telling them what FFT is doing and the teachers break down crying because they have kept granola bars in their desk drawers for the kids. The teachers know the kids are coming to school tired and with headaches and are not able to provide them with the food they need. The people in these communities know the struggles everyone is enduring but most people like me would never have imagined that the struggle is that bad. It’s the memories like these which need to be shared so that more can be educated and change the food system for the better.

The night after we had our interview, Bell said he was going to an 8th grade graduation from a student he has been helping through FFT since 1st grade. The connections this organization has provided are endless and he said, “it’s a beautiful thing – getting to go to the schools and be the guy who brings the food.” This even furthers the point – if communities can spread this much love and support for each other what can we do at the policymaking level?

In conclusion, the child poverty in Denver and its relation to food access should be prioritized in our community and should be transparently supported in our policies. Food is the basis of life and if so much of the population all around us are struggling to find any food, it is shocking there is not more being done. The furthering long-term effects of health and access to quality food are essential to the success of our society – not to mention the suffering itself. But with FFT these communities are being changed forever and given another chance – to have success in school and provide for their families.

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