The Community Food Bank of Grand Junction is a resource for people facing food insecurity on Colorado’s Western Slope. Produce grown at CSU’s Western Colorado Research Center is donated to this and other food banks. Photo: Alec Jacobson

It turns out that vegetable seedlings don’t react when you stare at them, willing them to grow faster.

In April, I stood in our greenhouse and tried.

We had thousands of cucumber, melon, pepper, and tomato seedlings sprouting at the CSU Western Colorado Research Center near Grand Junction. Through a unique alliance with area schools and nonprofits, produce from these plants would go to community food banks and emergency food programs on the Western Slope. But we were months away from harvest, and I was deeply frustrated we couldn’t respond faster to the food crisis triggered by COVID-19.

Hunger and food insecurity – a shortage of nutritious household food and the ability to buy it – have starkly worsened during the pandemic, as business closures have inflicted broad unemployment. School shutdowns have further impeded access to healthy meals among children in low-income families.

This summer, an estimated 18 percent of children in the United States do not have enough to eat, according to analysis of U.S. Census data by the Hamilton Project, the economic policy branch of the Brookings Institution. In all, 14 million children live in U.S. homes coping with food insecurity, nearly six times the number in recent years, data show.

Here in Mesa County, food insecurity is a long-standing problem – affecting one in five children. It is more troubling now. One major food pantry in the county saw client volume triple in the first weeks of COVID-19, and the majority of those clients were new to the agency.

Even five months into the pandemic, the need for meals remains high among vulnerable populations and children. For instance, the Lunch Lizard summer meal program, which provides free breakfast and lunch for children in Mesa County, has seen a fourfold increase in service; in July, the program was serving 20,000 meals per week.

Responding to these needs has been challenging for charitable food programs. Yet, at the same time, the challenges have helped our community identify critical services, relationships, and charitable networks we do not want to lose. In this way, pandemic response is informing our community’s long-range planning and how we want our food-security safety net to function going forward.

Colorado State University and our Western Colorado Research Center have a role. In 2017, I began coordinating a program called the Community Alliance for Education and Hunger Relief, based at the research center on CSU’s Western Campus. The alliance donates food grown at our center as part of the university’s agricultural research – along with additional fruits and vegetables from newly established plots. The Community Alliance involves schools, local nonprofits, dozens of volunteers, and college students. Together, we grow, harvest, and distribute fresh, nutritious produce to people in need, while simultaneously providing public education about food insecurity and healthy eating.

Our university team has been gratified to join local solutions. It’s a principle at the heart of our land-grant mission – a way CSU students, faculty, staff, and Extension agents can respond to complex problems with reliable information, connections, systems thinking, and direct support to our communities.

I’ve seen this summer just how critical it is to stay united and motivated in our efforts directing nutritious food toward hunger relief. Nonprofit staff and volunteers know the psychological impact on children who are told not to eat too much because groceries need to last through the week. They know the impact on physical and emotional well-being when people subsist on low-cost, poor-quality food that is only occasionally supplemented by healthy food from a pantry or meal program.

I am inspired by community commitment in the face of these problems. Since the Community Alliance formed, the Western Colorado Research Center has grown and donated more than 270,000 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables to food banks, pantries, and emergency meal providers across 14 counties on the Western Slope. This season, in response to the pandemic, we increased the number and variety of crops we’re growing for our farm to food bank program.

As I write, those seedlings from last spring are maturing in CSU garden plots. We have made it through spring frosts, winds, and insects. The tomato plants are above our heads. The first of our major harvests is rolling in, and the best part of my week is working with our dedicated volunteers to bring in the produce and deliver it to food pantries and meal programs.

We know this produce will help boost the nutritional content of someone’s next meal, and we hope to bring a smile to someone’s face. After all, there’s nothing better than a fresh, locally grown tomato.

Amanda McQuade is program coordinator for the Community Alliance for Education and Hunger Relief at Colorado State University’s Western Colorado Research Center, based on the Western Campus near Grand Junction.