Feeding Families: Wyoming’s First Lady Is Thinking Outside the Box

One in five children in Wyoming doesn’t have enough to eat. That’s 23,500 kids.

First Lady Jennie Gordon isn’t okay with that. And her innovative program, the Wyoming Hunger Initiative, is taking aim at getting that number down to zero.

How you treat those who are most vulnerable really speaks to who you are as a society, so I think feeding kids shouldn't be anything we have to think about. We should just automatically do it,” she says.

Her groundbreaking efforts are gaining immense traction in the Cowboy State, and her collaborative, creative approach is filling plates — and bellies — across Wyoming.

“I didn’t really see food insecurity in Wyoming for a long time,” the First Lady reflects. Not because it wasn’t there, she explains, but because so many of us get caught up in our own busy lives that we sometimes don’t realize the amount of hunger in our own communities. A silver lining of COVID, she says, is that more people became aware of food insecurity around them.

“It made people realize that everyone is one emergency away from being in need. I think oftentimes, if you’re doing well — you’re prosperous — you may not even see it. Having your neighbors and friends lose their jobs or not being able to work because of restrictions made it obvious that it really could happen to anyone. I think it took the stigma away a little bit,” she says.

When her husband Mark Gordon was elected governor of Wyoming in the fall of 2018, Ms. Gordon knew that she wanted to focus on food insecurity as her initiative as the state’s First Lady. Instead of starting from scratch and attempting to build something from nothing, she realized that there were already some organizations across the state who were working tirelessly to solve hunger in their communities. Her vision was to connect them, support them, and empower them to expand their impact.

“We aren’t reinventing the wheel,” she explains. “We’re really tailoring our work for each community and championing those who are working in their areas — lifting them up. We want to network people, we want to support people, and we want to make sure that they give us feedback so we’re not working on something that’s not a good fit.”

One of the most unique and resourceful elements of the Wyoming Hunger Initiative is where some of the program’s donated meat comes from. Food from the Field taps into Wyoming’s strong hunting heritage to facilitate the donation of game meat to local food banks. The Wyoming Hunger Initiative helped to bring together hunters, local meat processors, and hunger-fighting organizations to let local hunters gift some of their animal to those in need.

In 2020, Food from the Field delivered nearly 3,800 pounds of wild elk, deer, and antelope to food banks across the state. “It’s a really Wyoming solution to hunger,” First Lady Gordon says. As a hunter herself — a participant in the Women’s Antelope Hunt since its inception — she leapt at the opportunity to collaborate with Wyoming Game & Fish to develop the innovative program.

Similarly, First Lady Gordon has forged new relationships with ranchers who contributed Wyoming-raised beef to the Food from the Farm and Ranch program. Last year, 54 animals were donated to food banks, and distributed to families facing food insecurity.

“Partnerships are invaluable. We partnered with our Stock Growers Association to get the word out, and we also worked with the 4H and FFA sales at local fairs to get animals,” the First Lady says. “It’s been so great to have those partnerships.”

We are so inspired by First Lady Jennie Gordon’s efforts to end food insecurity in Wyoming,” says Molly Hughes, Executive Director of the Hughes Charitable Foundation. “At last year’s Women’s Antelope Hunt, I was thrilled to donate the animal I harvested to the Food From the Field program. We love that the Wyoming Hunger Initiative strives to celebrate the work and systems that are already in place across the state, and make them stronger, more efficient, and more impactful.”

The Wyoming Hunger Initiative operates with a small staff, the First Lady points out. She and her Chief of Staff Trista Ostrom lead from Cheyenne, and a network of dedicated volunteers collaborate with local organizations to implement programming across the state.

In addition to the meat donation programs, the Wyoming Hunger Initiative also seeks to eliminate child hunger in the state through a lunch debt reduction program. Angel Accounts, as they’re known, are ways for donors to offset the amount of debt that families owe school districts for their kids’ lunches. Last year, the program paid off $17,000 of debt in Converse County, $1400 in Carbon County, and thanks to a generous donor, it’s gearing up to pay off around $10,000 in Fremont County.

Ultimately, First Lady Gordon says, children are happier, healthier, and more successful in school when they aren’t hungry. And when individuals and organizations collaborate, it’s possible to ensure that every family in Wyoming has enough to eat.

It’s simply the right thing to do, she says. “We help our neighbors in this state.”