By DENNIS HIGMAN
While it's hard for some people to believe there are actually people going hungry in prosperous Blaine County, Jeanne Liston, executive director of the Hunger Coalition, sees the irrefutable evidence every day. As the recession deepens, food requests have tripled. Almost half of that assistance goes to children, and over half of those children are newborn to 5 years old.
Liston, an attractive, lithe, dedicated young women, emphasizes this is a different kind of hunger problem than what she witnessed while traveling in Africa or working with street kids and AIDS patients in Bangkok, but it is just as real. "It's a lot harder to see here, but equally debilitating for parents working two and three jobs trying to provide the basics for family and children, or retired seniors struggling to make ends meet on a fixed income."
The problem in Blaine County is triggered by the fact that while the cost of living is very high, wages are low and many people don't qualify for government assistance programs, or when they do, the programs simply aren't adequate. "The federal poverty level for a family of four is currently $21,200 and the living wage in Blaine County is an estimated $55,000," she notes, "which means even working people may still have to cut back on necessities.
"Everybody has to pay the rent and take care of medical bills. And to work in Blaine County, most people have to have a car, buy gas and pay for childcare. That leaves food as the only place to cut expenses, and when that happens, people go hungry or are forced to buy cheaper, less nutritious food. Neither alternative is acceptable, especially for growing children."
Making sure that doesn't happen to anyone in Blaine County—retired seniors, working men and women, the increasing number of adults out of work, families and most particularly children and infants—is the challenge faced by the Hunger Coalition, founded in 2003. "Our goal is to see that nobody has to choose between the necessities of life," Liston says with passion. "That just isn't right. Fortunately, we live in a generous, prosperous, active community where this doesn't have to happen."
Liston, who previously served on the Hunger Coalition Board, was hired in 2007 as its first full-time employee when it became apparent that the exploding need for its services required rethinking its collection and distribution system. "Sometimes I hyperventilate just thinking about what we have to do in such a short time," Liston says. "But then I settle down, think about all our wonderful volunteers and the generous support we have from businesses and donors, and get back to work."
Jeanne Liston, born and raised in Kansas City, is no stranger to hard work and challenges. After college, where she majored in art and French, Liston went traveling around the world, paying her way by working for a winery in Germany, picking olives in Italy and teaching English in Egypt and French in Kenya. She also did social work in Thailand and worked for a foundation in Madagascar trying to save the endangered fish eagle.
"It was Africa that really opened my eyes," she recalls. "I met such generous, caring people with so little to give but who didn't hesitate to give whatever they could. And the country was so beautiful. I fell in love with Africa. In many ways, I left my heart there."
Not all her heart, however, for after years on the road, Liston returned to Kansas City and married Tom, her best friend from high school. They moved to the Wood River Valley nine years ago and live in Bellevue where he is a remodeler.
Liston first went to work for the Environmental Resource Center and then The Nature Conservancy while volunteering for the Hunger Coalition. When she was given the opportunity to work full time for the coalition, she jumped at the chance. "Because of my work and travel in developing countries, I had seen poverty first-hand and I was ready to take on the challenge of ending hunger in Blaine County.
"Until recently, local service agencies like the Advocates for Domestic Violence and St. Luke's Center for Community Health have been providing our food vouchers to clients as part of their service, but it was obvious we also had to get into food distribution ourselves to meet the growing need."
The Hunger Coalition now has a food warehouse in Hailey and a van to distribute it in Blaine County, and it continues its popular "Backpack" program providing weekend food to the one out of three children in Blaine County who qualify for food programs in school during the week.
"We couldn't do any of this without help from our local volunteers," Liston says, "or those who hold fundraisers on our behalf, and the churches, schools and businesses who help us collect food. It truly is a community effort."