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Copyright © 2003 Express Publishing Inc.
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Wednesday, June 23, 2004


Hunger coalition attacks hunger

Group picks up where federal program ends

Express Staff Writer

Despite the Wood River Valley’s reputation as being a place of affluence, there are still a considerable number of families struggling with the most basic of needs: putting food on the table.

Lexi Holz, of the St. Luke’s Community Center for Community Health, stands in front of the Center’s food pantry, which has benefited from contributions by the Blaine County Hunger Coalition. Express photo by Willy Cook

Formed in July 2003, the Blaine County Hunger Coalition, is making strides to augment the federal food stamp program administered by the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare by providing food vouchers, supplying access to information and increasing awareness of hunger in the valley.

In 2003 the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare recorded 132 clients in Blaine County who received $122,347 worth of food stamps. And those numbers almost certainly understate the number of people in the county who need assistance. An Idaho Department of Health and Welfare audit found that as of July 2003 approximately 10 percent of food stamp applications statewide were erroneously denied.

"This has been a year for people to see we are making an impact," Blaine County Hunger coalition executive director Tom Iselin, explained in a recent meeting.

Since March of 2004 the coalition has purchased and distributed $2,000 worth of grocery vouchers. Of that $2,000, approximately $750 has been distributed to needy families.

The coalition buys the grocery store vouchers from Atkinsons’ Markets at a 15 percent discount. The vouchers are then allocated in $20 amounts to social service agencies.

Tom Iselin

Unlike food stamps, there is no red tape, explained Katie Corkery, a coalition board member. No criteria such as income level or number of children is necessary for a family to qualify for the vouchers. That means the vouchers can be handed over immediately, with no criteria to meet and no approval process to go through.

The approval process for food stamps can be a long one. According to the recent state audit, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare receives about 4,500 applications per month. Thirteen percent of applications are not processed in the standard 30-day period.

Coalition vouchers, however, can instantly assist those in need. Corkery has worked to see that social services workers at The Advocates, Saint Luke’s Center for Community Health, Head Start and Blaine County School District have access to the vouchers. These agencies then use their own discretion to distribute the funds.

The vouchers can be used to buy any grocery items, except alcohol and tobacco products.

"Vouchers are able to provide things they can’t buy with food stamps," said Betty Brooks, family advocate for Head Start.

Brooks recalled that during one of her visits to a family she discovered the household could not afford toilet paper.

The average monthly food stamp benefit is $200 per family, as recorded by the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. Given this amount, many families find themselves without money to buy other necessities. The coalition vouchers can then be used to buy necessary paper products like toilet paper and feminine products.

In addition to the vouchers, the coalition also helps by stocking agency food banks and providing food baskets.

Over the course of the year, the coalition also realized the need to connect needy people with available resources.

"There are so many services, but what we’ve discovered is a huge gap between the people and connecting them to those services," Iselin said.

In order to link available social services with those in need, the group created The Food Card. The card is an informational resource on food assistance services in Blaine County. The card is a simple and anonymous avenue used to connect those in need with social services available in the valley.

"People have been very grateful to know there is a comprehensive list," said Amy Anderson, a volunteer with the coalition said.

Anderson has worked to distribute the cards throughout Ketchum. She works alongside three other volunteers who distribute the cards at social service agencies and businesses such as laundry mats and landscaping companies throughout Ketchum, Hailey and Bellevue. The Hunger coalition was recently granted permission to make the cards available at the Souper Supper Dining Room in Hailey and to distribute the card to school social workers and counselors.

"Many people don’t know what services are available," Anderson said.

The Food Card answers questions about food assistance in Blaine County with a list of agencies and brief descriptions of their services. The card also includes a map with directions to the Souper Supper Dining Room, which provides free, hot meals twice a week.

The card is printed with one side in English and the other in Spanish.

The Food Card aligns with the organization’s guiding principle to empower individuals to help themselves. The principle is rooted in the idea that connecting people and resources will help individuals move from dependency to self-sufficiency.

In addition to the voucher and Food Card programs, the Hunger coalition is currently pursuing projects to further extend its reach.

"We could do more if we had a building," Iselin said.

The group is working to secure a building from which to center their operations. The building would serve as a place to build food boxes and store food. The coalition is actively seeking a 700- to 1,500-square foot space with a kitchen in Hailey. The coalition said any type of short-term donated space or other solution would be helpful.

A building would also allow the coalition to apply to become an affiliate of America’s Second Harvest, which is the largest domestic hunger relief organization in the United States. Iselin hopes that by becoming an affiliate, the coalition would then look to bring the organization’s Kid’s Café program to the county. The café would provide year round meals to hungry children, becoming of particular importance during the summer when kids are without any other options.

In order to fund the programs, the Hunger coalition embarked on a door to door fundraising campaign last winter and raised $10,000. The group plans to continue fundraising this summer. In addition, "The Bread of Life," a book by Iselin weaving together personal stories and insights, has brought $2,000 to the organization.

The coalition is also awaiting approval of their 501(C)3 application. Although the application is pending approval, tax deductible donations are currently accepted.


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