Summit County’s poverty on the rise, according to latest figures | SummitDaily.com

Summit County’s poverty on the rise, according to latest figures

The number of people unable to consistently afford nutritious food is on the rise in Summit County, according to newly compiled state and federal data.

Based on the most up-to-date statistics available from 2015, more than a fifth of people in Silverthorne are living in poverty. The county as a whole is a percentage point higher than the rest of Colorado's population of 5.5 million, approaching 14 percent locally.

"It points to a scary trend," said Tamara Drangstveit, executive director of the Family & Intercultural Resource Center. "Any time you see statistics, what you see is unfortunately this community is not moving toward poverty reduction."

The Food Bank of the Rockies assembled numbers identify 12 percent of the county's population — including more than 16 percent of its children under 18 years old — as food insecure. By comparison, Aspen's Pitkin County is akin to Summit, while Vail's Eagle County is lower than both at 8 percent.

The double whammy of insufficient access and affordability leads to the figure that about 3,400 Summit residents regularly struggle with an empty stomach. That figure is alarming to many, particularly because on its face the idea of hardship in a resort community can seem foreign.

"One of the things that we struggle with in more of the affluent counties is a lot of people don't realize that there are people that need help," said Janie Gianotsos, Food Bank of the Rockies' director of marketing and community relations. "At times we hear, 'Nobody up there needs any help, there's no poor people.' They think it's, 'Everybody's working and has boots to pull up the straps on and away we go.'"

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The stats don't lie, though, which is why the regional food pantry teams with nonprofits like FIRC to help alleviate the growing hurdle. The two partner on a few different programs to tackle immediate needs within the community.

Once a month, a semi-truck load of nonperishable food items is dropped off at the bus barn in Frisco. Typically more than 100 people show up the morning of the fourth Thursday each month to accept the assistance.

In another new collaborative effort, Food Bank of the Rockies distributes food twice a week to FIRC to offer free summer lunch twice a week in Silverthorne and Dillon to moderate-to-low-income families who are part of the Summit School District's free and reduced lunch program.

The elementary schools in those two towns see the greatest amount of students who qualify for that food assistance program — Silverthorne with approximately a third of its students eligible, and almost half at Dillon Valley. No other single school in the public district with more than 50 students enrolled has greater than 35 percent eligibility.

How representative the data might be is also relatively difficult to pinpoint in the High Country, in large part because of how transient the resort towns can be. With such fluctuations in population, it's never entirely clear how many actually deal with poverty or near-poverty circumstances.

It's that populace that the Dillon Community Church has most often seen at its food pantry the past five or six years. After opening in 1993, the area assistance program grew to about 1,000 visitors annually until the recession hit in 2009 and the number of individuals being served swelled to about 4,000. It's held at roughly that number each year since, though shifted toward more seasonal workers than permanent residents.

"The resort impacts are really evident in the use of local resources," said Jude Mitchell, administrator at Dillon Community Church. "We see a very small percent of those in temporary crisis. Our people just tend not to be stable in the community, not stable within jobs and income, and the majority are not longtime locals or haven't stabilized here."

Those short-term employees are not counted in the new dataset, so their influence is tough to measure. What is definitive, however, is the price of living in the mountains is a major contributing factor to the collective challenge, and with an annual federal poverty level that lacks any geographic adjustments, it's hard to imagine any long-term solutions.

"The underlying issue is it costs more to live here than most people make," said Drangstveit. "As long as wages are stagnant, it's difficult to combat issues related to poverty. So FIRC's focus has been trying to develop strategies that will have an impact."

The five community gardens established in partnership with the High Country Conservation Center and Summit County WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program is another initiative to offer families fresh, locally produced vegetables at FIRC's two food banks in Silverthorne and Breckenridge. Aside from those and the monthly mobile pantry, as well as the chapel in Dillon, the county has one other food bank at Father Dyer United Methodist Church in Breckenridge.

An assortment of free weekly community dinners is also available in Summit's battle against this sometimes hidden, but mounting obstacle.

"A lot of people are struggling with food insecurity, and they may be making a living wage in Denver, but it's not a living wage in Summit," said Drangstveit.

"But I think this community has worked really hard to support working families, so that a lot of programs the county and towns have put together help reduce those numbers."

Summit Food Banks:

FIRC Breckenridge: Mondays/Wednesdays, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Dillon Community Church: Mondays/Wednesdays, 4:30-5:30 p.m.; Fridays, 1:30-2:30 p.m.

Father Dyer Methodist Church: Tuesdays/Thursdays, 10 a.m. to noon

FIRC Silverthorne: Tuesdays/Thursdays, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Food Bank of the Rockies mobile pantry: Fourth Thursday every month, 10 a.m.

Free Community Dinners:

Father Dyer Methodist Church: Sundays, 6-7 p.m.

Elks Lodge/Summit Rotary Club: Tuesdays, 5-7 p.m.

St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church: Tuesdays, 6-7 p.m.

Agape Outpost: Tuesdays/Thursdays, 1-4 p.m.