Wyoming’s economy has improved over seven months, Gov. Gordon says. A visit to a Casper food bank showed many in Wyoming are still struggling, including newcomers to charity. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

CASPER — Before COVID-19, 54-year-old Cynna Rich was a small business owner whose residential cleaning outfit employed herself and four others.

The pandemic hit, and her clients didn’t want cleaners in their homes, Rich said. The business collapsed. She laid off her employees. She moved to secure lower rent, she said.

Rich recounted this while standing outside Casper’s Poverty Resistance Food Pantry on a cold Jan. 7 afternoon. 

These days, she visits Poverty Resistance to secure food for herself and some neighbors at a collection of homes outside of town, she said. They are all struggling as the pandemic stretches into a new year and its economic impacts continue to deepen, she said.

“Some people are tougher than they used to be. And some people are nicer,” Rich said. “I have to help as much as I can. It’s tough trying to make it right now.” 

The food bank that Mary Ann Budenske has run out of a small storefront on Wolcott Ave for more than 40 years is seeing the increased demand of hard times. The facility has served around 600 new clients since the pandemic began, Budenske said. 

On this afternoon, food bank workers, volunteers and some customers formed a chain and quickly unloaded and stacked boxes of bananas, watermelons and other produce from a volunteer’s pickup. Pallets of sliced bread loaves were already stacked along the sidewalk.

Mary Ann Budenske poses for a photograph in 2018. (Courtesy photograph)

“This will be gone by Monday,” Budenske said, surveying the victuals. 

Customers filed through after the truck left, wearing masks and using hand sanitizer at the door. Several visitors asked for dog food, which was in short supply. Though the demand is up, and the facility has limited the number of people who can be inside together, the crowd that afternoon was manageable.

“There’s not that many people in Casper,” said Debbie Bean, who volunteers at the food bank. “We’re not going to see a line.” 

Staff and volunteers are seeing new faces, however, as hard economic times stretch on. Some new customers are also new to accepting aid, volunteer Steve Burns said. 

“People are dropping their pride and ego and saying ‘we need help. We can’t do it all,’” he said. 

Unemployment in Wyoming remains higher than in past years, though the reported unemployment rate is lower than in many surrounding states. Still, from Sept. 16-Oct. 12, 11% of Wyoming households with children reported they “sometimes or often” did not have enough food, according to a report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a national charity dedicated to children’s wellbeing. 

Some visit Poverty Resistance to put food on the table, staff said. But that’s not the only reason. Not having to pay for groceries saves a household money that can go to other needs, like rent or utility bills. 

Fueled by volunteers, not relief funds

In a speech Jan. 12 to the Wyoming Legislature, Gov. Mark Gordon told lawmakers a massive influx of federal pandemic aid money and state intervention has helped stabilize Wyoming’s economy. 

“We find ourselves today on much more solid footing than other states are,”  he said. “I can say that because we have produced seven straight months of economic improvement, and at 5.1% we have one of the nation’s lowest unemployment rates.”

Wyoming received $1.25 billion in federal relief last spring. Of that, the state allocated very little toward food insecurity efforts. The largest chunk of the state’s money went to prop up businesses in hopes of keeping residents employed. Privately, First Lady Jennie Gordon raised and distributed $1.1 million through The Wyoming Hunger Initiative. Since April, that amount has included the governor’s own salary, which Gordon has been donating to his wife’s program. 

Poverty Resistance received $500 from the first lady’s initiative, according to Budenske, and more than $2,000 through the state’s CARES Act distribution. The Wyoming Hunger Initiative’s focus on childhood hunger kept the charity from getting more, Budenske said. Budenske’s charity, which asks little of its clientele besides that they sign in, wear a mask and use hand sanitizer, feeds all households — including ones with children, the staff said.

The Wyoming Hunger Initiative distributes grant funding to support the infrastructure of organizations dedicated to childhood hunger, the first lady’s chief of staff Tristra Ostrom told WyoFile. The organization delivered emergency COVID-19 relief grants using a formula calculated based upon a county’s population and other food need indicators, Ostrom said.

Poverty Resistance is visibly a shoestring operation. The charity is fueled by volunteerism and sales from a thrift shop down the street. Several volunteers suggested that no small amount of the budget comes from Budenske herself.

Food quantity isn’t an issue, Budenske said. Through the pandemic the operation has received waves of food donations from grocery store chains, federal food programs and Wyoming Foodbank of the Rockies. “The problem is not supply, it’s distribution,” she said. She believes there is widespread need going unmet. 

Helpers unload food from the Black 14 initiative at the Cathedral Home for Children in Laramie on Nov. 16, 2020. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

Through her other job as a lawyer, Budenske is seeing an uptick in concerns about evictions as unpaid rent stacks up, she said. She criticized a state-run program to funnel CARES Act dollars to tenants and landlords struggling to pay or collect rent. The program, which was designed to stave off homelessness and evictions, only spent $1.5 million of the $15 million the Legislature allotted it. State officials say that figure represents demand, but Budenske believes the program wasn’t adequately publicized.

In January, the director of Laramie Interfaith, an Albany County food bank, told Wyoming Public Radio he too is seeing an increase in concerns about housing and requests for rent assistance. The CARES Act program did not reach enough people, Josh Watanabe told the radio station. 

In the Annie E. Casey Foundation survey, 15% of Wyoming households with children said they have “slight or no confidence in paying rent or mortgage on time.”

Some food bank visitors expressed their own frustrations with state and federal aid programs. “Most of those aren’t available for small-time folks,” said a visitor named John, who declined to share his last name. 

“It’s a lot of money wasted,” he said.  

A deepening need

Budenske worries economic woes are deepening for many people, she said. While Wyoming residents have begun receiving new $600 stimulus checks from the federal government, economists worry the gap between the $1,200 checks people received in April and the new stimulus money is too wide, and the amounts are too low. 

While some visiting the food bank are sliding into new needs, for others, the pandemic has deepened long-standing poverty and made the prospect of climbing out ever more difficult. 

Melanie MacMillan is a 36-year-old single mother of two teenagers. Her own mother was also a struggling single mother, MacMillan said.

MacMillan lost her job as a hostess when restaurants shut down at the pandemic’s onset, she said. She did not apply for unemployment insurance because she didn’t think she would be eligible for it, she said, and spent her first stimulus check on a car. But the low-priced car “took a crap on me,” MacMillan said, and relying on public transportation has made finding new employment difficult. She will use her $600 check and her children’s to buy another one, she said. 

The food bank, meanwhile, can help her feed her children as well as an aunt and an uncle, she said. 

The stress has impacted her mental health, MacMillan said. In that, she’s not alone. The Casey Foundation found that 20% of Wyoming households with children were experiencing feeling “down, depressed or hopeless.” 

But asked if she wanted more stimulus from the federal government, MacMillan demurred. “I honestly am grateful,” she said. “It’s free money to help us get back on our feet and I’m grateful they’re even thinking about us.”

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UPDATE: This story was updated to include comments from Trista Ostrom, Wyoming First Lady Jennie Gordon’s chief of staff, that were received after initial publication. —Ed. 

Andrew Graham

Andrew Graham is reporting for WyoFile from Laramie. He covers state government, energy and the economy. Reach him at 443-848-8756 or at andrew@wyofile.com, follow him @AndrewGraham88

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