First Lady Jennie Gordon in a promotional video for her campaign to end childhood hunger. (Screengrab/Nohungerwyo.org)

Back in October, Wyoming’s first lady Jennie Gordon released a video announcing her new campaign to end childhood hunger. From the 10-yard line of the University of Wyoming’s beloved football field, she explains there are roughly 23,000 hungry kids in Wyoming. The camera pulls back to reveal row upon row of bleachers. Wyoming’s hungry kids could nearly fill this stadium.

The challenge is, hunger isn’t concentrated in just one place. It happens in every Wyoming community. Gordon has used her platform as Wyoming’s first lady to drive that point home.

To promote the Wyoming Hunger Initiative, she’s crossed the state visiting organizations that are working to feed kids. She volunteered with a program in Laramie that fills backpacks with food that school kids bring home on Fridays to get them through the weekends.  She’s visited a school that serves free breakfast to ensure all students start their day with a good meal.

Gordon’s mission is to “increase awareness and support for the work of local anti-hunger organizations statewide.” She’s clear about not wanting to reinvent the wheel, choosing to focus on work that’s already happening locally. The initiative’s website provides a list of organizations in communities across the state, making it easy for others to get involved.

Her celebration of grassroots efforts should be applauded, but it’s not a solution. Passing out food only temporarily alleviates the problem. Ending hunger requires more than providing free meals. “Food insecurity disproportionately affects low income residents,” the initiative’s website acknowledges, continuing, “13% of Wyoming children under the age of 18 fell below the poverty line in 2017. 

One way to address childhood poverty is to pay parents more.

Let’s return to UW. Many of the staff who keep the place running earn less than $30,000 a year. The custodians who maintain the academic buildings and the bakers and cooks in dining services, for example, don’t earn a living wage. 

The Living Wage Calculator, created by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, determines “the minimum employment earnings necessary to meet a family’s basic needs while also maintaining self-sufficiency.” That doesn’t include “funds for entertainment” or “leisure time for unpaid vacations or holidays.” What the calculator deems a living wage does not factor in workers being able to take their families out to eat. Instead, it’s a wage that simply enables a person to avoid housing and food insecurity without the need to seek out public assistance.

Let’s take the mid-point salary for the technicians who care for the football stadium where first lady Gordon stood on the 10-yard line. That $26,112 might be enough for a single adult, but when kids enter the picture it’s definitely not. For a single working parent with one child, a living wage would be closer to $48,000 a year.

MIT’s Living Wage Calculator provides data for every county in the United States and estimates a living wage for families of various sizes. It would likely show us there are lots of employers in Wyoming falling short.

Why pick on UW? Because it’s the largest employer in the state’s poorest county. In Albany County, the university is like a defensive lineman — a huge impact on the outcome and experience of everyone in the stadium than any other player. It has the potential to be a game changer.

At UW, of the 429 full-time workers surveyed in a study conducted by its Staff Senate last year, 39% had a second job, and 19% said they were currently receiving public or charitable assistance.

In the comments section, respondents talked about working additional jobs out of economic necessity. 

So, parents pick up extra work to put food on the table. But then they’re not home to prepare and serve the meals.  

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Those backpacks that first lady Gordon helped pack in Laramie? My three kids and I have volunteered to pack them too. They’re full of food that kids can prepare on their own, such as single-serving applesauce and granola bars, in anticipation that parents might not be around.

It’s a smart response to a problem, but it’s not the entire solution.

We must demand that employers pay workers more.

At UW, the employer is the state. With the legislative budget session underway, perhaps the first lady could appeal to Gov. Mark Gordon  and the State Legislature to lead by example, and ensure that employees of the state’s only university earn a living wage. 

The legislature could further combat poverty by raising the state’s minimum wage to exceed the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour.

These measures would help Wyoming continue to be a good environment for families. The state ranks 11th for child poverty. Kids here are better off than in most other states, but the Equality State should expect more of itself.

There’s no catch-all solution, but as Jennie Gordon points out, we all must do our part.

Volunteering and donations are a start. But we also need to work with policymakers and employers to ensure that we all get paid enough to feed our children without a second job, or reliance on public and charitable assistance.

Chris Rynders

Chris Rynders has lived in Laramie for six years with his three kids. For more than a decade, he's worked in technology with a focus on helping people learn, communicate and connect.

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