By Mary Simms, The Hunger Coalition
Sun Valley, Idaho once ranked as one of the top places to retire rich.1 This might resonate with those looking to buy homes for over a million dollars, drop $2,359 a year to ski world-class slopes, or pay a premium for basic groceries. For second and third homeowners, the cost of living feels close to home, where everyday prices mirror those of San Francisco and Seattle. What this mountain community doesn’t share with these metro-areas is the average wages needed to afford this standard of living.
Though the area is rich in natural beauty, there are two edges to every ski. There’s a crisis and it’s impacting over half the population of Blaine County. It’s conveniently hidden behind well groomed lawns, exceptionally clean homes and perfectly poured beer. The reality is, 52% of Blaine County residents are food insecure or one crisis away.2 Like many other resort towns, much of the employment opportunities here are low paying service jobs, making it impossible to thrive in an otherwise wonderful place.
The United Way reported that 41% of Blaine County residents are classified as the ALICE population — an acronym which stands for Asset-Limited, Income-Constrained, Employed. The ALICE households earn above the Federal Poverty level, but not enough to make ends meet. These are people working multiple jobs, unable to save funds for an emergency, pay their rent, or afford quality food. In Blaine County, teachers, baristas, and frontline workers are living on the edge of crisis, just trying to survive, and are often left out of the standard hunger conversation.
In a moment of catharsis, locals take to the town classifieds to vent. Comments like “Over $3,000 a month for a simple house? It’s greed that is pushing hard-working people out of this valley. Signed, About to be homeless…” can be read weekly in the Idaho Mountain Express. The rentals that do exist go for prices that working people can’t afford. In June 2021, a resident listed their two bedroom three bath condo for $9,000 a month. There’s plenty of work here, but nowhere for the labor force to live. With a housing crisis, the fifth highest grocery costs in the nation, and wages that have dropped over the last ten years,3 The Hunger Coalition, a local non-profit addressing the root causes of food insecurity, was serving a staggering number of people even before the pandemic.
Cue global crisis: COVID-19 pandemic.
In the first four weeks after COVID-19 struck Blaine County in March of 2020, The Hunger Coalition served more people than in all of 2019. The pandemic showed the organization what happens when a crisis affects everyone at once. Like food assistance organizations across the nation, The Hunger Coalition faced unprecedented numbers of people seeking support.
“In my family, the help is very great…emotionally as well as financially. If it weren’t for The Hunger Coalition, my family would be skipping some meals.” — Hunger Coalition Participant
With countless stories of heartache and struggle from the frontlines, it was obvious something had to be done to address the reasons people were in need of food to begin with. To provide a more comprehensive answer to the hunger crisis, The Hunger Coalition launched Bloom Community Food Center this summer — a place where the working people have an array of opportunities to move between food support programs based on their interest and level of need. Bloom Community Food Center includes:
- Next Gen Food Pantry: Where families can online order their groceries, choosing the foods they want, reducing waste, and providing fresh food and pantry staples of their choice.
- Community Kitchen: A place where visitors can share recipes and stories while having the opportunity to create new memories and traditions around food.
- Heated Greenhouses: A learning space for individuals and families to dive into the growing process, volunteer to help grow food, and even walk across the way and cook a meal with the tomatoes they harvested moments ago.
- Café: A gathering space to strengthen relationships and share in the joy that is good food.
- Community Partner Room: A one-stop shop to access various services that partners offer to provide robust support for community members, like help with rent from a local charitable fund or help with medical bills with the local hospital.
- Children’s Room: A room filled with toys, games, and kid-friendly artwork where children can play while their parents participate in community meals, gardening sessions, or food distributions.
- Bloom Community Farm: A growing space, historically stewarded by the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe who lost access to traditional food sources and whose lifestyles were disrupted or destroyed. Their loss of land and culture is honored through a commitment to steward this land for future generations. Through education and agriculture, these spaces help inspire a resilient future for all members of Blaine County.
The Hunger Coalition envisions a community that isn’t known for being ranked as one of the best places for rich people to retire or for exceptionally high food costs, rather, a place where the needs of the community are met and every person has access to the good food needed to thrive. Together, in collaboration with key partners, participants, and supporters, the community will ensure good food is a right for all people.