Oct 212008
Authors: Madeline Novey

Part one of a three-part series on hunger in Larimer County in 2008.

About two and a half years ago, Victoria Nilson, faced with the decision to either pay for mounting healthcare costs or for her food – on a mere $859 in Social Security benefits per month – was forced to do neither and paid the bills instead.

Nilson, a 79-year old Loveland resident and a retired nurse, is just one of the many seniors who make up 12 percent of the total number of people served at the Larimer County Food Bank who are unable to make ends meet on a limited income.

Presently, Nilson said her $859 income is split at the seams, spent on expensive medical prescriptions, healthcare deductibles, second-hand clothes and much-needed dental procedures – and food cannot be her financial focus.

“Twenty years ago, I would have never seen myself in this position,” Nilson said.

Tuesday through Saturday, families and individuals who make less than 185 percent of the federal poverty line — or less than $18,888 per year for individuals like Nilson — visit Food Share, a direct service food pantry and branch within the Larimer County Food Bank, to put even the most basic of foods on the table.

Nilson said that she goes to the pantry about two times a week to picks up the “nutritious” foods she can’t afford – milk, fruit, vegetables, juices and teas – that she said keep her healthy.

While Nilson said her situation is a challenge and that she struggles to get even the most basic of foods, she said she could not imagine what it’s like to live on a limited budget as a family.

“There are a lot of elderly women and young families with children in line when I go to the pantry,” Nilson said. “I don’t know how (the families) are doing it, especially if they have children – they’re going to need help from someone.”

And the number of those requiring aid is only growing.

A need that has no end

In the 16 days between Oct. 1 and Oct. 16, 8,400 Larimer County residents living in poverty, including Nilson, were forced to rely on Food Share.

“We’ve seen a pretty alarming increase; it’s frightening really,” said Amy Pezanni, executive director of the Larimer County Food Bank. “The working poor are the fastest growing segment that we’re serving.”

Larimer County defined poverty as “the percentage of people living at or below the Federal Poverty Guideline” on its Web site. “In 2007 the guideline was $10,210 for an individual, $13,690 for a two-person household, and $20,650 for a four-person household.”

Officials said that figure represents the largest number of people who utilized the food bank’s services since the facility opened about 25 years ago.

They said there is a fear that without expansion or a significant increase in donations, they may have to cut back on the amount and the number of times per month food is given out to the struggling families.

“Generous,” Pezanni said, compared to the number of visits allowed by other pantry programs nation-wide, the organization fears that increasing numbers of the hungry will exhaust already limited resources and lead to a decrease in the number of visits per week. “The change will most affect senior citizens,” Pezanni said. “They come in more often because their financial situations are fixed, whereas families can move around, find another job and make more money.”

People directly involved with efforts to help eradicate the growing crisis of local and world hunger said they were shocked and disheartened by the statistics.

“It’s staggering; there’s really a large number of people who are affected locally – people focus so often on hunger around the world, but there are people affected here,” said CSU student and founder of the CSU hunger coalition, Seven Days for Seven Dollars, Travis Hall.

“With things like Cans Around the Oval, that’s great, but I would like to see people helping all year round so that the food banks don’t run out of resources,” Hall added.

Pezzani said that in addition to expanding the facility’s services in coming years, the greatest effort at present is setting people up with Federal assistance. The Larimer County Food Bank’s “strategic initiative” is to increase the number of people using the Simplified Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, in order to alleviate some of the resource pressure on the organization.

Winter pushes in, struggle presses on. Nilson said she is going to have to make more trips to the pantry than usual in the coming weeks to stock up due to the combination of the approaching cold weather and an upcoming financial strain. On Oct. 31, Nilson, who is without dental insurance, will have no choice but to pay for a $400 tooth extraction that she said will drain her financial resources.

She said the procedure was unavoidable because the pain caused by that tooth – one of only nine she has left – became intolerable. This winter, food expenses may once again take a backseat to the others that Nilson is forced to face. For now, Nilson said she believes the only solution to solving the hunger crisis that has infiltrated Larimer County is increasing awareness of poverty.

“We need to be trying to get out the awareness, because I don’t really know if people are aware or not,” she said.

“The best thing we can do is send out information and get more donations.”

Senior Reporter Madeline Novey can be reached at news@collegian.com.

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