Famous for champagne powder and world-class summer recreation, Routt County in Northwest Colorado has gained a reputation as an affluent, fit community. Because of this, it may come as a surprise that accessing and affording healthy foods is an ongoing challenge for many of the county’s residents.
A large number of the jobs held by residents in Steamboat Springs, Oak Creek and Hayden are temporary, seasonal positions without health benefits. It can be difficult to make ends meet with these low-paying jobs, which creates a cycle of poverty. The average household income for a family of four falls more than $2,500 short of Routt County’s estimated costs to cover basic needs such as housing, child care, food, transportation and health care.
In order to address the food insecurity issues faced by more than half the residents in the county, LiveWell Northwest Colorado partnered with the CSU Extension Office, Community Agriculture Alliance and WPM Consulting to conduct a food assessment to evaluate the local food system and develop a plan to increase healthy food access. The assessment could then potentially serve as a template for other communities.
“We wanted to show how difficult it can be for people to find and afford food in our community and create a tool that can do something about it,” says Barb Parnell, LiveWell Northwest Colorado coordinator.
To do this, the coalition held focus groups, collected extensive primary and secondary data and mapped the details of the existing food landscape–including barriers and resources to combat obesity, poverty and food insecurity across the county.
The report found higher than expected rates of obesity and food insecurity in residents. However, nearly 70% of Routt County residents eligible to participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) had not enrolled. Furthermore, the cost to purchase the daily recommended number of servings of fresh fruits and vegetables in Routt County is 34% higher than the national average.
“Now we have the data to show that food—especially healthy food—does cost more here. People are often told that one solution is to buy in bulk, but if you don’t have the money in the first place to afford a larger bag of carrots, then that solution isn’t going to work,” says Parnell.
The food assessment results have been presented to diverse groups of businesses, Rotary clubs, city councils, nonprofits and others to increase awareness of these issues and to help create a toolkit to connect the food insecure to resources.
Many people who qualify to receive assistance may not be aware of their eligibility or know where to start to sign up for benefits. To share knowledge and connect individuals to community resources, the toolkit and assessment results will be shared with the community, as well.
“The most exciting thing to come out of this project is having a road map to food security for the community,” says Parnell.