Single dad scoops up fresh food at food pantry to help grandfather tackle diabetes challenges

July 9, 2021
Les Johnston unloads groceries he got at FMC food pantry while talking dinner plans with her grandfather, Larry. Photo by Joel Blocker, for UCHealth.
Les Johnston unloads groceries he got at FMC food pantry while talking about dinner plans with his grandfather, Larry. Photo by Joel Blocker, for UCHealth.


Teaming up to strike out hunger

UCHealth and Major League Baseball (MLB) are partnering for this year’s MLB All-Star Week to engage the local community and raise money for Feeding Colorado.

Donations from UCHealth to Feeding Colorado — $10,000 for every home run — will be tallied as part of the 2021 MLB All-Star Celebrity Softball Game, taking place on Sunday, July 11. All celebrity participants will have an opportunity to lend a hand in fighting hunger in Colorado.

The UCHealth Family Medicine Center food pantry operates as an affiliate for Food Bank for Larimer County, one of Feeding Colorado’s five community food banks.

Feeding Colorado, an association of the five Feeding America food banks in the state, provides meals to Coloradans in need through direct service programs and a network of Hunger Relief Partners. The organization provided 116 million meals last year while enhancing food resources and coordinating advocacy efforts across the state.

In addition to the MLB All-Star Celebrity Softball Game, UCHealth will be engaging with fans at several All-Star events throughout the week – Saturday, July 10 through Tuesday, July 13 – including hosting a pre-run stretch for The MLB All-Star 5K participants.

UCHealth encourages the community to visit to make a donation to Feeding Colorado. Also on the website, enter sweepstakes for a chance to win tickets to All-Star Week events including All-Star Sunday, T-Mobile Home Run Derby and MLB All-Star Game presented by MasterCard.

At 32, Les Johnston has his hands full. He is a single father, working a full-time job, while also caring for his diabetic grandfather.

The last few years have been particularly challenging. After an amicable divorce in 2017, Johnston adapted to living with his grandparents while sharing custody of his 9-year-old daughter. When his grandmother was diagnosed with cancer in January 2017, Johnson took over the job of helping manage his grandfather’s diabetes.

With his own health issues too, Johnston has a lot of challenges to juggle. But there has been one stable place in his life: the food pantry at UCHealth Family Medicine Center – Fort Collins. The caring people at the pantry have done so much more than put food in his family’s bellies.

Each Tuesday, Johnston heads to UCHealth Wound Care Clinic – Fort Collins at Poudre Valley Hospital to drop off his grandfather, Larry. Diabetes has taken a toll on Larry since his wife’s death and he currently needs weekly treatment for his feet at the clinic.

Johnston then heads a few blocks away to the Family Medicine Center. With both parents having received health care services there, the center has been part of Johnston’s family all of his life.

“So naturally, I started going there,” Johnston said. “Once they started the food bank, I haven’t gone anywhere else.”

The Family Medicine Center offers primary care and trains residents who are training to become doctors. Every day, the providers serve about 150 patients, 70% of whom are low-income people who qualify for Medicaid. The center’s food pantry opened in 2017, and it operates as an affiliate for Food Bank for Larimer County.

“For people who do not have access to high-quality foods, including fresh vegetables, dairy products and quality meats there can be devastating health consequences,” said Dr. Kristin Andreen, the center’s medical director.

Les Johnson picks out canned goods, which he got at FMC food pantry, in preparation of dinner. Photo by Joel Blocker, for UCHealth.
Les Johnson picks out canned goods, which he got at FMC food pantry, in preparation for dinner. Photo by Joel Blocker, for UCHealth.

“The lack of adequate healthy food can lead to diabetes, hypertension, obesity and even kidney disease,” Andreen said. “When we address food insecurity by giving fresh healthy options and a dignified food bank experience, it truly improves lives.”

Johnston and his family are a perfect example.

During one of Johnston’s recent visits to the food pantry, he was able to stock up on supplies of healthy carrots, lettuce, green beans, apples and oranges.

“Vegetables are the number one thing I’m looking for when going to the food bank,” Johnston said. “I’ve finally got grandpa eating his vegetables. I fix them in a way that’s good.”

Johnston has learned his cooking techniques by borrowing cookbooks available for checkout at the food pantry. He copies recipes and returns the books the following week.

Les Johnson unloads vegetables he got at FMC food bank that day. Along with caring for his 9-year-old daughter, Les also cares for his diabetic grandfather. Photo by Joel Blocker, for UCHealth.
Les Johnston unloads vegetables he got at FMC food pantry that day. Les is a caregiver for two: his 9-year-old daughter and his diabetic grandfather. The pantry helps him provide his family with nutritional meals. Photo by Joel Blocker, for UCHealth.

“I’ve gotten so many cookbooks from these guys, but I bring them back so someone else can use them,” Johnston said. “If I fix good food right, then grandpa will eat it. Stir-fries are a big thing in our house, and my daughter likes steamed vegetables though she’d rather eat them raw.”

With the resource for healthy cooking, Johnston was able to get his grandfather’s A1C levels under control for the first time and he shed 40 pounds of unhealthy weight.

“It changed my way of life, being a caregiver and having a full-time job,” Johnston said. “But I try to make sure grandpa has what he needs. I have food set aside for him that he can pop in the microwave while I’m working.”

Johnston also stocks up on canned fruit and vegetables.

“With diabetes, grandpa has to snack at least five times a day and canned food is really good for that,” he said. “Then we usually do dinner salads and rice.”

Les Johnston prepares dinner for him and his grandfather, Larry, at their Fort Collins home. With help from the FMC food pantry, Les has been able to cook healthy meals and stabilize Larry's A1C levels. Photo by Joel Blocker, for UCHealth.
Les Johnston prepares dinner while talking with his grandfather, Larry, at their Fort Collins’ home. With help from the FMC food pantry, Les cooks healthy meals and has been able to stabilize Larry’s A1C levels. Photo by Joel Blocker, for UCHealth.

“I try to think of what I don’t have when I come here,” he continued. “Sometimes they have a small pan of beef lasagna. I can take that to work for lunch. I’m getting beans and canned vegetables, as I’m going to make chili. We go through that quick.”

Larry just got fitted for dentures the other day. Johnston has to consider his grandfather’s food restrictions when prepping meals. He gets other good options, like tomato and chicken noodle soup.

And eggs. Lots of eggs.

Johnston will often take hardboiled eggs and a can of Vienna sausages to have during his lunch break at Valvoline in Fort Collins, where he works as an oil technician. He can’t justify spending money on fast food when he has what he needs at home.

“I can’t skip a week (at the pantry) because we go through the food fast. And, if I don’t go two days each week, we run out of those vegetables.”

The food bank is open four days a week. In June 2021, it served 352 unique households, which accounted for 891 people. Between July 1, 2020, and June 30, 2021, the food pantry had more than 10,100 visits.

Les cooks a healthy meal with food he got at FMC food pantry. Photo by Joel Blocker, for UCHealth.
Les cooks a healthy meal with food he got at the FMC food pantry. Photo by Joel Blocker, for UCHealth.

“Being located within FMC is the whole idea of wellness,” said Laura Elliot, coordinator of the food pantry. “We are not just caring for one aspect of their life.”

Not only does it provide food security, but having regular weekly visits to the food bank has given Johnston a routine, which he needs as a recovering alcoholic. When he lost his grandmother in 2017, that routine helped him carry on and was an outlet for his grandfather as well.

“With grandma in the hospital, the food bank was a thing to look forward to — especially the people, like Laura, I’d hang out and talk with her. I wouldn’t take off right away because there would be a lot of time waiting on doctors. Sometimes I’d even help stock,” Johnston said. “And I’d make grandpa go to the food bank with me. It would give him a second to get away from the hospital. We all needed something structurally stable in our lives.”

It is why the food pantry is so necessary, Elliot said.

“The impact we can make on their personal lives, not just the ability to give them food, is touching,” she said. “The best we could hope for is to create something stable in their lives.”


About the author

Kati Blocker has always been driven to learn and explore the world around her. And every day, as a writer for UCHealth, Kati meets inspiring people, learns about life-saving technology, and gets to know the amazing people who are saving lives each day. Even better, she gets to share their stories with the world.

As a journalism major at the University of Wyoming, Kati wrote for her college newspaper. She also studied abroad in Swansea, Wales, while simultaneously writing for a Colorado metaphysical newspaper.

After college, Kati was a reporter for the Montrose Daily Press and the Telluride Watch, covering education and health care in rural Colorado, as well as city news and business.

When she's not writing, Kati is creating her own stories with her husband Joel and their two young children.