First lady aims to mitigate child hunger issues in Wyoming
“I was really naïve to the fact there are so many kids in Wyoming who were struggling to eat,” said Wyoming First Lady Jenny Gordon. “After talking to some friends who were involved in food programs, I knew I wanted to help.”
Gordon has made it her First Lady’s initiative to assist children who are struggling with hunger and remove the stigma attached to receiving a free lunch.
“What piqued my interest in these programs was running into a friend of mine in Sheridan who had a couple of fully stocked grocery carts,” Gordon said. “I asked her if she had decided to adopt 100 kids, and she told me about the Friday Food Bags program in Sheridan.”
This program allows students who may not have had access to meals over the weekend to pick up a food-filled bag on Friday afternoon to eat over the weekend.
Gordon explained the Friday food bags are what really sparked her First Lady’s initiative and put her plans in motion.
Gordon was the keynote speaker at the inaugural University of Wyoming Extension Excellence in Agriculture Symposium in Gillette on May 1.
In addition to praising the works of women in agriculture, she also discussed her hunger initiative.
Removing the stigma
Gordon explained she never wanted to reinvent the wheel with food assistance programs but instead remove the stigma students associate with accepting a “free lunch.”
Gordon has been busy visiting schools and food pantries alike to figure out the needs and shortcoming of these programs and how to best address them.
“We have noticed as kids get older, they are less likely to participate in programs such as Friday Food Bags or free breakfast,” Gordon explained. “I don’t think it’s really due to the need changing as much as the stigma older kids attach to the concept of getting free meals.”
Gordon noted she and Montana First Lady Lisa Bullock have collaborated on these issues. Bullock informed Gordon of a program in Montana that removes some of the stigma attached to their previous breakfast program and prevents kids from being singled out for participating in programs.
“The First Lady of Montana calls the program they use ‘Breakfast After the Bell,’” Gordon said. “This program is a universal breakfast that allows all students to eat breakfast in class, instead of singling out those students who qualify for free and reduced lunch programs.”
Gordon has reached out to schools in Wyoming to start implementing a similar program and address any doubts teachers and administrators may have about such programs.
Gordon explained in most schools, only students who qualify for free and reduced lunch are able to eat breakfast at school, which singles out those students and makes them less likely to take advantage of the program.
“One in six children in Wyoming struggle with hunger,” Gordon noted. “But this problem isn’t just here in this state, nationwide 51 percent of children struggle with hunger.”
“This is a statistic I’m just not okay with, especially here in our own communities,” Gordon said.
Gordon explained she is traveling around the state with her team and visiting schools that have adopted programs to see what’s working and what’s not.
“A lot of teachers have reported fewer discipline issues and trips to the nurse when more kids have access to breakfast,” said Gordon. “Teachers told us, before they had food programs, many students would begin acting out and asking to go to the nurse by about 10:30 a.m.”
Gordon said she has visited with the Wyoming Department of Education to try and create statewide programs, as well as get schools connected to exchange ideas.
“As someone involved in production agriculture, I have a really hard time knowing there are kids in this state who are hungry,” said Gordon. “There is so much production agriculture in this state, and my long-term goal is to use agriculture to help solve the child hunger problem.”
“We really want to shine a light on this issue because I don’t think a lot of people are aware of just how many kids struggle with hunger in our own communities,” Gordon noted.
Gordon explained her hunger initiative recently received a $16,000 donation to help with some logistics of the program.
“This money wasn’t necessarily donated for food as much as some of the equipment the schools need to distribute the food to students,” according to Gordon. “It was a huge help, and we hope to get other people involved in these programs.”
Gordon said she hopes to have a directory available to the public outlining the locations of food pantries and other programs to assist children with their needs.
She encourages people to get involved by volunteering at their local food pantries or contacting school districts to see what they need.
Callie Hanson is the assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.