Food stamp enrollment in Montezuma County grew by about seven percent last year, according to a report by Hunger Free Colorado.
In 2016, 57 percent of eligible residents signed up for the service, known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. In 2015, about 50 percent of eligible residents in the county enrolled in the program.
In 2016, 3,328 people in Montezuma County received food stamps, and 2,550 eligible low-income residents did not enroll. In 2015, 3,126 enrolled for SNAP benefits.
Statewide, 54 percent of those eligible enrolled in 2016, compared with 74 percent nationally.
Increased outreach to inform low-income families of the SNAP program improved enrollment, with 44 of the 64 counties showing increased participation, according to the report. But Colorado ranks 45th nationally for access to the program.
“Counties have taken positive strides in the last year, yet one in eight Coloradoans still struggle with hunger,” said Kathy Underhill, CEO of Hunger Free Colorado.
One reason cited for the increase in enrollment was the passage in June of Senate Bill 190, bipartisan legislation that focuses on improving efficiency of food stamp programs.
The second annual Food Stamp Impact Report compares county performance with state and national averages based on enrollment, economic impact and timely and accurate application processing.
Colorado is meeting the federal standard for timely processing of 95 percent, and has been above the benchmark for 12 consecutive months. Montezuma County also gained in timely processing, going from a 93 percent score in 2015 to a 94 percent score in 2016.
The state also gained in the SNAP program access category, going from 57 percent to 59 percent, which is the 11th-best national ranking for improvement.
Food stamps support local economies through grocery sales because the store is reimbursed with cash for food stamp vouchers. In 2016, Montezuma County gained $5 million in economic benefits from the SNAP program, according to the hunger report, and left $2 million on the table from eligible residents who did not sign up.
Out of nine counties in Southwest Colorado, only Montezuma, San Juan and Archuleta counties met the state average for food stamp participation.
In Dolores County, 29 percent of those eligible, or 151 residents, enrolled in the food stamp program. The 370 low-income residents who did not sign up translates to $286,000 in lost grocery sales.
In La Plata County, 43 percent of the estimated low-income population enrolled, representing 3,447 individuals. The 4,610 low-income residents who did not sign up translates to $3.7 million in lost grocery sales.
Montezuma County social services director Josiah Forkner said the county does its best to process food stamp applications on a limited staff. The county has seven full-time employees, each handling 450 cases. To handle much more would require a larger budget, of which 20 percent is funded by the county and 80 percent by the state.
“The state (budget) allocation is not set up to handle a huge increase in cases, so that still needs to be addressed,” Forkner said. “We do not turn away anyone who is eligible.”
According to Hunger Free Colorado, food stamp programs improve health, lower health care costs, promote work and economic stability, enhance academic performance, and help seniors maintain their independence.