Income gap: How Summit County’s high cost of living can complicate nutrition — and what residents can do about it

Nestled in the corner of the Summit County Library, Lisa Pema scuttles around the kitchen of her 25-foot-long home on wheels, readying her lunch. 

With limited power from her utility van, Pema becomes a conductor in her small kitchen, unplugging and plugging in appliances — a coffee maker, milk frother and blender — to keep her meal hot. A bowl of precooked salmon, broccoli and sweet potatoes waits to be heated by her countertop grill.

This has been a usual routine for Pema for the past five years. 

“My intent was to purchase the van as temporary housing until I figured out where I could stay,” she said. 

But Summit County’s high cost of living has made Pema’s van a long-term housing solution — one she has embraced. Pema said she’s able to save money from her housekeeping job that would otherwise be depleted by rent. She keeps her van parked overnight in Frisco in a lot hosted by the Unsheltered in Summit Safe Parking Program. And without the burdens of additional fees like electrical bills, Pema can focus more of her money on what makes her happy — like eating a good meal.

Yet healthy eating may prove to be too much of a financial burden for some to bear, especially as inflation keeps the cost of groceries and other necessities stubbornly high. And with the end of pandemic-era government benefits, advocates fear a new wave of food and nutrition insecurity has hit working families and individuals.

Despite the challenges, Summit County’s working-class residents can still attain a nutrient-rich diet through community resources and thoughtful decisions, experts, residents and advocates say. 

And for some community members, healthy eating is an option they can’t give up. 

“Both my parents were obese. Secondary to obesity, they had diabetes, high blood pressure,” Pema said.

As she watched them struggle with their health, she said the time they spent at doctor’s offices dictated the end of their life, and she feels it was related to how they ate.

Any “money or time spent eating healthy pays off,” Pema added. 

Pema heats salmon, broccoli and sweet potatoes on her countertop grill. Pema said opting to live in a van rather than paying exorbitant rent has allowed her to spend more money on what makes her happy — like eating a good meal.
Andrew Maciejewski/Summit Daily News

Accessing nutrition amid record-high need 

As Pema drove through Dillon on a mid-March day, she was surprised by the large line she saw outside the Family & Intercultural Resource Center food market. There were at least 50 people, some leaving the nonprofit’s building with boxes of fresh produce, Pema said, while adding that not a single parking spot was open.

She said the scene illustrated Summit County’s struggle with high cost of living and inflation.

County nonprofits have been at the forefront of efforts to curb hunger and help residents gain access to healthier foods as demand reaches record levels. Resource center staff members said they provided services to about a third of the county’s residents last year — with a 116% increase in demand when comparing December 2021 to December 2022. 

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Brianne Snow, the resource center’s executive director, said her staff “absolutely understand the link between nutrition and poverty.”

“We know that our low-income families face the greatest risks of developing diet-related conditions including diabetes and obesity,” Snow said. “That is causing them even more lasting economic issues.”

Resource center data shows that the average reported household income for a client was $30,964 in 2022. That’s above the federal poverty level of $22,290 but far below what the nonprofit believes is financially self-sustainable for life in Summit County. The resource center estimates families would need to be making around $90,000 to reach financial sustainability. 

This comes as housing prices continue to climb in Summit County, with a single-family home selling for an average of $2 million in 2022. And grocery prices in Western states, including Colorado, increased by nearly 10% between January 2022 and January 2023, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

With cost-burdened families forced to stretch their dollars, Snow said it’s crucial the resource center works to provide quality food whenever possible. About 80% of the food in its week-to-week inventory is fresh and includes products like milk, eggs, chicken, fruits and vegetables, Snow said. 

Resource center volunteer Leo Santos said he knows the reality facing many families today who “worry that they won’t be able to pay their rent, let alone feed their family.”

Santos and his family relied on the resource center’s food bank during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now he serves on its food equity coalition, which advises nonprofit staff about what food they should be providing.

“I wanted to get involved because being part of the disability community, sometimes we’re overlooked,” Santos said. “I also wanted to be the voice for the Mexican community and make sure that we could get access to good food and healthy food.”

Leo Santos, who serves on the Family and Intercultural Resource Center’s food equity coalition, said he wants fresher food for the community — which relies heavily on the nonprofit’s services
Robert Tann/Summit Daily News

A focus on healthy eating has also been the mission for county residents Margaret Sheehe and Sarah Schmidt, whose nonprofit Smart Bellies delivers bagged meals to school-aged children in Summit County and Leadville every weekend. 

Sheehe and Schmidt said they’re currently serving around 700 families, the most they’ve ever seen, and are relying on a patchwork system for food procurement that includes buying from wholesale food distributors as well as monthly trips to Denver to purchase food from Costco. 

“Very little of our food is bought here in Summit County,” Sheehe said, a symptom of the area’s short growing season and limited food supply. 

Still, Smart Bellies has been able to meet the community’s needs, Sheehe said, and will continue to be a resource for families. 

Like the resource center, it strives to offer options for a balanced diet with a typical bag containing a staple carbohydrate such as potatoes, rice or pasta, as well as generous servings of vegetables with the occasional meat or dairy product. 

Schmidt said the service goes a long way for helping families offset the cost of food at the grocery store and allows them to focus on other needs like bills and rent. 

Snow said she wants families to know they can rely on nonprofits to help find healthier food options that won’t eat at their budget. 

But she added that for residents with limited purchasing power at the store, “choosing something fresh and healthy, even if it may be more expensive upfront, is ultimately going to be less expensive because of your long-term health and wellness.”

Jenna deJong/Summit Daily News
Food prices in Western states, including Colorado, rose by almost 10% last year, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Jenna deJong/Summit Daily News

Diet is ‘not an all or nothing,’ expert says 

Purchasing healthier foods may seem like an unaffordable luxury for budget-strained shoppers, especially when it comes to fresh produce with a short shelf life. But a nutrient-rich diet is possible even with canned, frozen or dried foods, said Barbara Demming-Adams, a professor with the University of Colorado Boulder’s ecology and evolutionary biology department

“There are a lot of myths about what’s needed and what’s not,” said Demming-Adams, who focuses on human health, nutrition and environmental sustainability. “Your diet doesn’t have to be perfect. It’s not an all or nothing.”

Simple substitutes for staple food items can boost nutritional value at little-to-no extra cost, Demming-Adams said, such as eating multigrain tortillas over white flour tortillas, which contain more “high-burning starches.” These types of starches, Demming-Adams said, can send a person’s blood sugar “spiking” to the point that it “impairs your immune system.”

Another overlooked aspect of improving diet on a budget is investing in micronutrients, which Demming-Adams said can be revolutionary for the body. These items include nuts, grains, berries, herbs and spices that, with “just a sprinkling,” can improve the body’s immune system, bolster its organs and feed brain activity. 

These foods are used by the body’s microbiota — a grouping of millions of microscopic bacteria living in the body that are mostly concentrated in the digestive tract and are the unseen powerhouse for many of the body’s activities.

“These minor food components, that people often forget to consume, have disproportionately great beneficial effects,” Demming-Adams said. 

Canned tomatoes line the shelves of City Market in Dillon. Canned produce can still retain a hearty amount of nutrition, according to one expert, and make for a cost-effective option.
Robert Tann/Summit Daily News

While some of these items may come with higher price tags, Demming-Adams said some foods, like spices and nuts, have long shelf lives. Plus, just a small amount is needed at a time to increase a meal’s nutritional value. 

“This might be an upfront investment, but it will make your food healthier for years,” Demming-Adams said. “They prevent us from getting sick both infectious diseasewise and chronic diseasewise.”

Pema, the van resident, said she’ll often make smoothies with Ka’Chava — a mix of plant proteins, vitamins and probiotics — which she’ll pair with frozen berries and yogurt. 

Frozen berries are an excellent example of a preserved food that still carries similar health benefits as their fresh counterparts, according to Demming-Adams, who said freezing does not diminish a food’s nutritional value.

Other preserved foods that make for a healthy meal include pickled herring, canned tuna and sardines since they are packed with Omega-3 fatty acids which Demming-Adams said have a “direct tie to brain function.”

Where preserved foods can be unhealthy is in added sugar content, Demming-Adams said. Reading labels is important, and when reaching for a canned product, opting for the one with the least amount of sugar is the better option, she said. 

For Pema, who is allergic to sunflower oil, reading labels has been an essential component of her grocery visits.

“I have to be very mindful of how I eat. I can’t really eat fast food or eat out at restaurants,” Pema said, adding that sugary foods, like a small brownie, can be an enticing snack especially when working days as long as 10 hours for her housekeeping job.

Demming-Adams said she doesn’t want to discourage or shame the desire to indulge in sugary foods from time to time. And even when intaking sugar, there are still ways to reap nutritional rewards. 

One example is choosing chocolate over hard candy. Another is opting for orange juice that has pulp since it contains fiber — which can improve digestion.

Pema said while she strives for a balanced diet, it’s never perfect, adding, “I certainly eat my fair share of sugar.”

But on days when she eats protein and vegetable-heavy meals, Pema said “mentally, I’m better — in a happier mood — and I sleep better.”

Pema makes a smoothie which she said will often consist of frozen berries, yogurt and Ka’Chava — a mix of plant proteins, vitamins and probiotics.
Andrew Maciejewski/Summit Daily News

Unhealthy eating remains a function of ‘economic ability’ 

While experts and advocates say there are ways lower-income residents can maximize their intake of healthy foods, it takes far more work — and time — for them compared to those who have more financial breathing room. 

Poor diet remains a function of “economic ability,” said Joel McClurg, policy and communication manager for Hunger Free Colorado, a food policy advocacy group. 

“Existing in poverty creates so many barriers to eating more healthily,” he said.

Buying fresh produce foods may add an extra $200 a month to a grocery bill, McClurg said.

“It doesn’t seem like a lot, but when you zoom out and consider a household budget for a family of four living in poverty, that extra $200 a month can be 10% of your budget, and that’s really prohibitive,” McClurg said. 

And with the recent drop in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, formally known as food stamps, which decreased by a monthly average of $90 per person as of March 1, McClurg said families and individuals face less buying power at the grocery store. 

Safety net programs, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, shrank in recent weeks as federal funding authorized during the COVID-19 pandemic ran out.
Robert Tann/Summit Daily News

But those benefits could be a crucial tool for fighting nutrition insecurity.

A yearlong SNAP pilot program in Hampden County, Mass., which lasted between November 2011 and December 2012, provided some recipients an additional 30 cents on every dollar spent on fruits or vegetables. Recipients who received the extra 30 cents consumed 25% more fruits and vegetables than their counterparts who did not receive the added benefit, a 2013 summary of the study found

Those findings, McClurg said, suggest that families and individuals want to make nutritious choices, but they often don’t because of their financial constraints. In Summit County, local initiatives are trying to close that gap. 

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According to county officials, more than 450 families in the county use SNAP while over 300 residents participate in a similar program known as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children — or WIC. 

Whitney Horner, a dietician and WIC director for the county’s public health department, said a county-led program in partnership with the High Country Conservation Center has served hundreds of low-income county residents on WIC this past year.

Known as Grow to Share, the program utilizes small gardens across the county to grow fresh produce for 15 weeks during the summer. Families who receive WIC are invited to the gardens to receive some of the food but also to learn about different produce and ways to use it in cooking. Last year, Grow to Share served more than 800 individuals — just over 220 families. 

Horner said the emphasis on education can spur residents to make their own decisions about how they make their meals. Given the county’s large immigrant and migrant population, framing food in a culturally sensitive way is essential, Horner said. 

“It’s more than just the fuel to your body. It’s also part of our culture. It’s also part of our story,” Horner said, adding she does not want to promote an “eat-this” or “don’t-eat-that” mentality since there are a multitude of relationships one can have with food. 

Still, food and nutrition insecurity remain public health issues and pose risks that are mental, emotional and economic, Horner said. 

“How can you promote your mental health, how can you go out and get a job and focus all day if you’re not nourishing your body?” Horner said. 

Despite the challenges that remain, Horner said she is optimistic. From a network of committed nonprofits to government resources at the federal and local level, Horner said there are more and more opportunities to provide county residents a nutrient- and food-rich lifestyle.

“Summit benefits from being a smaller, more tight-knit community,” Horner said. “We can fill each other’s gaps.”

Food resources in Summit County

Summit County has a network of food providers that offer free meals and some that can assist with enrollment in food assistance programs such as SNAP and WIC. Below are some resources:

Family & Intercultural Resource Center’s food market 

Provides fresh food as well as SNAP and WIC application referrals 

Location: The Dillon market is located at 340 Fielder Ave., Dillon, and the Breckenridge location is at 1745 Airport Road, Breckenridge

Hours: The Dillon market is open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Tuesday and from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Thursday. The Breckenridge market is open from noon to 6 p.m. on Wednesday

More information:

Smart Bellies

Provides weekend food deliveries for school-aged children 

To sign up:

Father Dyer Community Dinner

Provides hot meals at Father Dyer United Methodist Church every Sunday

Location: 310 Wellington Road, Breckenridge

Hours: Monday from 4:30-6 p.m., Wednesday from 4:30-5:30 p.m. and Friday from noon to 1:30 p.m.

More information:

Dillon Community Church Food Pantry

Provides free food

Location: 371 La Bonte St., Dillon

Hours: Monday from 4:30- 6:00 p.m., Wednesday from 4:30-5:30 p.m. and Friday from noon to 1:30 p.m.

More information:

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