CHEYENNE – According to First Lady Jennie Gordon, the Wyoming Hunger Initiative, which was her initiative as she came into the office, has really taken off and has seen some great growth throughout the state of Wyoming.
“What we’re working on is really not reinventing the wheel,” Gordon said. “We want to work with all the people who are already working in this area on the ground and Lynn Kirkbride, who is the secretary, has been on from the start and has been a great asset.”
The Food Hunger Initiative that Gordon has chosen to champion is ending childhood hunger and food insecurity for children in Wyoming. As a part of the Gordon’s campaign, The Food Hunger Initiative really was brought to the forefront of a pressing need to be addressed in conquering hunger in Wyoming’s children.
According to Kirkbride, one in five children in Wyoming is suffering from childhood hunger or food insecurities.
“As leader of the spouse’s group, we took on the challenge of raising money to back the initiative,” Kirkbride said. “I really love being involved in things that actually do things and have some traction. I knew from knowing Jennie and seeing what she was doing that this was going to be a big deal. It was going to make a big impact.”
In one year’s time, the impact that the initiative has caused has been epic.
Gordon, who was born and raised in Omaha, Neb., into a family with nine siblings did not have it easy as a child with many mouths to feed and a meager income.
“My dad was in the Air Force,” Gordon said. “Dad had been stationed in Wyoming in the ‘50s in Casper and Buffalo. We came here every year for vacation, and with such a large family that involved going camping for a month. We would camp in the Big Horns and eventually my dad retired here.”
Gordon has now resided in Wyoming for 41 years. She graduated from the University of Wyoming and didn’t meet Mark Gordon until after college while she was on a skiing trip north of Buffalo. According to Jennie Gordon, it took about two years to really connect, date and pursue marriage.
“I actually asked him out first,” she said. “I was working at a med tech at a hospital and he came in and I remembered him from the ski lodge. “I called him up and asked him on a date.”
It seems that Gordon has that same initiative in everything she approaches in life. Including the Hunger Initiative. It seemed apropos that upon moving into the Governor’s Mansion in 2019, one of the first orders of business was to plant a Victory Garden.
“With COVID a lot of people were saying that fruits and vegetables were hard to come by,” she said. “I thought of just starting a garden here and we planted vegetables and it was really wonderful because I used to plant a garden. That kind of sparked our new program which is called ‘Grow A Little Extra’ which is where we are asking home gardeners to grow a little extra.”
As for the idea for the Hunger Initiative, Gordon grew ideas out of a garden of her adversity growing up.
“Both my parents were raised in poverty,” she said. “My dad was raised during the depression from a family of 10. After his dad got sick he left home at the age of 14 to find his way in life. Mom was born in Vienna during the war and didn’t have anything until she came to the States. And so, when your dad is a Senior Master Sergeant and you have 10 kids, you have enough to eat, but just enough.”
It was instilled into Gordon to be grateful for everything you have and never waste anything. And most importantly to give back when you can.
“I always had that in the back of my mind and when you’re running for office, everyone asks about your initiative,” she said. “I specifically wanted to work on hunger, and specifically childhood hunger. Trista Ostrom who works in my office is just a go-getter and together we have come up with a Wyoming solution to this Wyoming challenge. Again, we don’t reinvent the wheel but work within the organizations on the ground to support them, raise awareness and I think that’s what makes it work.”
Gordon realized the hard work that organizations have put forth and instead of scrapping plans and systems all over the state like bureaucracy sometime does, she came up with solutions to tie organizations together and she listened to what the people actually needed to succeed.
“We’ve done some grants for pantry replenishment,” Gordon said. “We’ve worked with both the Guernsey backpack program as well as the pantry there. We also work with the Wheatland United Church of Christ Food Pantry (it is actually called the Wheatland Food Bank). We try to make sure that a percentage per population goes to every county.”
As for partnering in organizations that reach out and touch Platte County, Gordon says that The Hunger Initiative partners with the Wyoming Food Bank of The Rockies, The Wyoming Food Coalition, Food from the Field and Food, Farm and Ranch to name just a few.
Also paid within The Hunger Initiative is the Angel Accounts.
“Traveling around the state I learned there is almost $285k worth of unpaid lunch debt,” Gordon said. “These are kids that kind of fall between the cracks. They don’t qualify for the free and reduced lunches, but they don’t quite make enough so they get behind.”
The Angel Accounts is a program that was created to alleviate that debt. The pilot programs for this program were put into place in Converse County and Carbon County.
“What we’ve asked them is to take the child out of the equation,” she said. “The debts between the parents and the school district, so they make the contract. If they pay off half of their debt, we will come in and pay for the other half. It gives them a little bit of relief and so far in Converse County they’ve already eliminated over $10K of their $42K debt.”
According to Kirkbride, for the program to work, the families have to put forth an investment to make it happen and to make it more effective.
“Another thing that The Hunger Initiative is doing is providing infrastructure grants,” Kirkbride said. “We provide some grant opportunities for any of the pantries around the state that need things such as shelving units or a dehydrator or a refrigerator. There was a lot of need last year because when COVID hit, there was much more need and programs were really being leaned on heavily.”
Ultimately, when they had the increased food donations from state organizations, they were finding it hard to find a place to put it all. Organizations that were limping through, making the best of what they had were suddenly finding their equipment overtaxed and centers overwhelmed.
One of the most satisfying things about working with The Hunger Initiative according to Kirkbride was the support of the people and businesses. Over $1.4 million was raised in one year’s time to help this fledgling program. The launch was October 2019. None of the monies are from government funds, and according to Gordon, all funds are from individuals and corporations and it all came with very little lobbying. She mentioned that she was overjoyed that these people and corporations simply stepped up when they knew there was a need.
“And that money comes in and goes right back out,” Kirkbride said. “We don’t sit on any of it, so it has really impacted our communities.”
As for overhead, Gordon who volunteers her time to help do the books, says that it is minimal and cites a lot of volunteer labor that has come on board to help. There are no administrative fees, and other than some money for PR to promote the program, the money goes right back into the communities.
“In the infrastructure grants, we have distributed over $110K already,” Gordon said. “There will be another $50K going out in the next grant cycle. We’ve replenished pantries during COVID to the tune of $400K and now we are working on the ‘Grow A Little Extra’ where mini-grants are being dispersed to those who are starting up community gardens. I think our program has been very successful.”
Touched by family lack as a child, Gordon has turned that idea of “never enough” into “more than enough” in Wyoming. The programs continue to blossom and the fruit has been enjoyed by hurting people all over the state.
To find out more about The Hunger Initiative or to learn about what you can do to join this team of Samaritans, you can visit: https://www.nohungerwyo.org/
The entire interview at the Governor’s Mansion can be seen on Wyoming Newspaper’s web-based television program, “HOMESPUN” aired on the websites and Facebook pages of the Guernsey Gazette and the Platte County Record Times. This program is set to air May 17.