Wyoming group seeks to improve public access to healthy food

CASPER, Wyo. (AP) — Last winter, a group of farmers, educators and economic development professionals gathered on the Casper College campus to discuss what it would take to develop a self-sustaining food network in Wyoming and begin to solve food security issues that have long plagued small communities around the state.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Wyoming — one of the few states in the country without a food council at the time — saw food insecurity rates in the double digits and, despite its agrarian reputation, offered few opportunities for farmers to either reach new markets or even begin selling their wares.

Though that first winter’s conference of the Wyoming Food Coalition was lightly attended due to an impending winter storm, the dozens who were in attendance resolved to begin building a framework to solve these issues throughout the next year.

The mission was a broad one, looking not only at how to help their fellow farmers build independence but to also build resiliency in the communities they occupy. The coalition hoped to give people the tools they needed to overcome the significant gaps that exist in accessing healthy food in places like the Wind River Reservation and the state’s most far-flung communities in the dozen or so food deserts that dot the Wyoming landscape.

About one year later, that group is nearly ready to go public with those efforts, the Casper Star-Tribune reports.

Earlier this month, the Wyoming Food Coalition met virtually to update one another on the work of several subcommittees dedicated to addressing the issues holding Wyoming back from having a truly sustainable ecosystem.

Their charges varied widely, looking at everything from marketing assistance and teaching sustainable agricultural practices to helping growers get into the market or, in some cases, learn to plant vegetables for the very first time. But they also intended to lay a groundwork to help Wyoming’s communities thrive during times of economic and social strife — a growing concern for some as the climate crisis continues to worsen and incidents like the COVID-19 pandemic have laid bare numerous vulnerabilities in supply chains around the world.

To address that, the coalition not only wants to find money to help those producers get off the ground, but to cultivate interest and provide support among people looking to get into agriculture and potentially become a part of the solution.

“We need more producers; we need to get people interested in this,” said Adam Bunker, a member of the coalition’s executive committee and proprietor of Papa Joe’s Produce, a Sheridan-based greenhouse. “But we also need to provide programs that help support people who are starting out small, so that they can get their foot in the door and they can get established and then start to grow from there.”

“We’re not looking to help the person who has, you know, $3 million to go buy a new ranch and start a new operation,” he added. “There are a lot of programs out there for people who are looking to do that. We want to help the people who are genuinely interested in starting a small backyard garden and starting to take produce to their market, or the person who wants to just start a greenhouse and become a medium-sized producer. That’s what we’re really looking to work with. And we think that by working with those people, we can have the biggest impact on food availability in Wyoming.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has only amplified the depth of the state’s vulnerabilities. At the start of the summer, officials with the Department of Family Services warned lawmakers that vital services like the food stamps program were experiencing increasing pressures from the economic fallout of the current crisis. Meanwhile, a sizable percentage of the state’s workforce — 5% — remained unemployed as of last month, according to the most recent numbers from the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services.

Government agencies like the Wyoming Department of Education and, in particular, the office of first lady Jennie Gordon have sought to hem the worst impacts of the crisis through new programs and grants to food banks and other charitable organizations. However, building long-term sustainability in Wyoming’s food systems could have lasting benefits for residents as well as the producers looking to feed them.

“Strong and resilient communities give me the most hope that all of our grandchildren will be able to survive — and perhaps even thrive — in the challenging future that we are leaving them,” Mike Selmer, a Laramie-based climate activist and chair of the coalition’s sustainability working group, told conference attendees earlier this month. “Those strong communities cannot exist without robust local food systems that are themselves resilient.”

This is particularly critical on the Wind River Reservation, home to some of the most vulnerable populations in the state. Rhonda Bowers, who chairs the coalition’s working group on Strong Native Communities, has been working within the coalition to begin formulating an effort to not only teach residents of the reservation what grows well and how to grow it, but to learn to cook with it as well — part of an effort to stem dietary problems that are exacerbated by a lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables. (The drive from Crowheart — on the edge of the reservation — to the nearest supermarket, in Lander, is about 45 miles.)

“Most of the time it’s really hard for them to get the nutrition that they need when they have to drive to Riverton or Lander to get to the grocery store,” Bowers said. “And at times, the selection of the produce you can get is slim. Most Natives don’t want to. Sometimes, the Natives don’t want to buy the fresh food because sometimes they don’t know how to cook it.”

But the coalition also seeks to give small producers a united voice in the Wyoming Legislature as well. That can mean advocating for policies like an expanded Food Freedom Act (which passed in last year’s legislative session with lobbying help from coalition members) or resisting a potential grocery tax in the next session, a proposal they believe will hurt lower-income consumers and place additional bureaucratic burden on independent sellers. A similar proposal was rejected by a legislative committee earlier this fall.

The Wyoming Food Coalition is not the first, nor the only, group working on food security issues in Wyoming, Bunker is quick to note. But in the coming years, Bunker hopes the organization will become first to begin working on a comprehensive solution to the problems that have plagued Wyoming’s supply chains for years, whether through offering financial support to new producers all the way to helping new farmers market vendors learn to accept alternative forms of payment, like food stamps.

“That’s one of the biggest challenges that we deal with, so maybe there’s a way we can provide administrative support,” he said. “This coming year, we’re going to really start to roll out a lot of these programs that are starting to really make a difference on these issues.”