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‘They’re Taking the Community Through Food and Beyond Food’
Monday, May 3, 2021


Roxy Ruiz beamed as she walked through the spacious new warehouse at The Hunger Coalition, past a room that will be used as child care while parents are receiving services and down a hallway opening onto brightly colored offices.

“This new campus will not only help The Hunger Coalition address food insecurities but it will provide ways to build community,” she said.

The new 13,000-square foot Bloom Community Food Center at 110 Honeysuckle Street is still a work in progress. But, already, food production manager Lynea Petty has harvested lettuce, spinach, kale, cilantro and radishes for clients hungering for fresh greens.

She and her co-workers have also grown starts of broccoli, cauliflower, cucumbers and green onions, which are nourished by an automatic mister and fans that turn on when the temperature inside the greenhouses get above 68 degrees.

Later this summer Petty envisions volunteers carrying armloads of veggies from the greenhouse over to the new Community Kitchen in The Hunger Coalition’s new office building. There, guest chefs will show community members how to prepare various vegetables, and members of the community will be invited to cook their favorite dishes for others, who can then eat them in the adjacent Community Cafe.

A whiteboard in the conference room down the hall lists some of the ideas staff members have brainstormed for the Community Kitchen. They include classes on how to make tortillas, Buddha bowls, one pot meals, breakfast and dinner tamales, bread and baby food.

Other ideas include kids’ cooking classes, preparing budget meals and allowing participants to use the kitchen to make food to sell at farmers’ markets.

The building is anchored by a spacious lobby with a reception desk and a sitting area with brightly colored chairs and wall hangings featuring radishes, peas and eggplants.

The Hunger Coalition’s 18 fulltime employees have put their personal touches on small offices lining the ground floor hallway and the second floor with green plants, botanical illustrations, peacock feathers, family pictures and multicolored rugs.

A second-story rooftop patio looks out on the mountains lining the Wood River Valley.

A small meeting room sits on the second floor, while a larger space occupies the northeast corner of the first floor. It will host community partners like The Advocates and St. Luke’s who can meet with people when they come to pick up food.

The room is anchored by a colorful mural created by internationally known Los Angeles muralist John Zender Estrada. Several members of The Hunger Coalition’s staff met Estrada during a recent event celebrating the work of Cesar Chavez.

Invited for a tour, Estrada became enthused by The Hunger Coalition’s mission and extended his stay so that he and his son Dion could paint the mural featuring an immigrant family amidst Idaho’s natural beauty and bounty.

“He was inspired by our vision to build a beautiful space for the working people of Blaine County and wanted to contribute in this way,” said Associate Director Naomi Spence. “My interpretation of the mural is that Idaho is a place for all people and the beauty should be shared.”

The expanded warehouse on the west side of the building includes two large walk-in freezers and plenty of wall space for shelves holding beans, canned ravioli, granola bars, Cream of Mushroom soup and StarKist Lunch To-Go packages.

When the coronavirus pandemic began, The Hunger Coalition resorted putting together boxes for clients. But that didn’t address people’s special needs, such as food allergies and diabetes. So, The Hunger Coalition began offering an online shopping tool so people can pick what they want, cutting  food waste.

The exterior of the building boasts trellises that will soon be hanging with hops and space for murals that five artists will paint on June 4-5. The ground in front is bare dirt right now, but The Hunger  Coalition hopes to host a community gathering in which community members will be encouraged to help landscape the area by planting perennials, designing colored rock ways and maybe even putting in a water feature.

The Hunger Coalition had hoped to use the original siding on the building, said Executive Jeanne Liston, but it crumbled when workers were replacing the windows.

The new building triples the space for The Hunger Coalition, which has been busting at the seams for a few years.

“Our community has serious challenge with its high cost of living and food,” said Kristin McMahon, the Hunger Coalition’s development director.

“According to the United Way, 52 percent of Blaine County residents are food insecure or one crisis away from needing help. That’s half of us, and that was before the COVID pandemic started,” she added.

In fact, food costs in Blaine County are 50 percent higher than the national average with the average family of four paying $369 for a week’s worth of groceries that a typical American family spends $246 for.

The Hunger Coalition served 6,400 clients, including those taking part in the summer kids’ program, last year during the pandemic. That’s more than double as many families as it fed before the pandemic, and the numbers have not decreased, said Liston.

Roxy Ruiz is among those who have benefitted from the Hunger Coalition. She and her husband moved their family from the Willamette Valley in Oregon to the Wood River Valley seven years ago when her husband landed a contract here. When his contract ended, The Hunger Coalition provided food so they could pay rent and utilities.

This week it came full circle as Ruiz started a new job as The Hunger Coalition’s community care assistant.

“We’ve gone from food bank to community food center,” she said. “With this new facility, they’re building community through food. They’re taking the community through food and beyond food,” she said.

McMahon said The Hunger Coalition has patterned its approach after the Community Food Centres Canada.

“We envision things being healthy and happy and fun and collaborative,” she said. “I think it will be something people will want to be part of.”

Hunger Coalition staffers can’t wait to invite the community in. In the meantime, they’re elated to welcome one another back after having had to work from home due to COVID.

“It’s been challenging to have this awesome space and not be able to show it off,” said McMahon. “But, we’re enjoying plenty of small moments right now just reconnecting.”

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