More Coloradans are receiving food assistance today than during the worst months of the Great Recession.
Since 2007, the number of people receiving benefits from the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program – formerly known as food stamps – has more than doubled. An average of 508,200 residents qualified for SNAP dollars each month during 2013, according to the Colorado Department of Human Services.
From 2007 to 2013, the number of people seeking food stamp help in La Plata County grew from 23,603 to 46,057.
This year, the state predicts that an additional 44,000 Coloradans will sign up for help in putting food on the table. But the available assistance is limited. The average SNAP household of 2.5 people receives about $300 a month, according to government figures, or $10 a day.
“The big challenge right now is, in November, food stamp benefits were reduced when the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009’s temporary boost ended,” said Michelle Ray, spokeswoman for the advocacy group Hunger Free Colorado.
The dollar deduction means some families are sacrificing nutritional food such as milk and produce for cheaper, less healthy alternatives, Ray said.
In some cases, food banks have stepped in to help.
“We don’t care if they get food stamps. A lot of people just need help” said Vic Ocana, executive director of Compassion Food Banks. He said Compassion’s nine locations in Colorado all report growing lines for food distribution since last fall.
“We try to give them enough food for the month, but people are more anxious for help now,” Ocana said.
In recent years, the SNAP program has become caught up in political infighting in Washington, with House Republicans wanting to cut benefits in the name of reducing government spending, while Senate Democrats, among others, argue that the program is important in the fight against hunger.
In Colorado, about 40 percent of “working age” SNAP users, those 16 to 65, were employed as of June 2013.
“Seeing one person abusing the system ruins it for everyone else,” said Andrea Fuller, executive director of the monthly newspaper Denver VOICE, of allegations that the program is sometimes misused. “For the majority of people on SNAP, it’s humiliating and humbling.”
Before getting her position with VOICE in November, Fuller said she relied on SNAP benefits to help feed her family.
“Even working multiple part-time jobs, I wasn’t earning enough,” Fuller said. In 2011, she enrolled in the SNAP program. “It’s one thing for me to be hungry, but I can’t bear to see my children hungry.”
Many SNAP users just aren’t earning enough to feed themselves and their families, Fuller said. Others need government assistance after losing a job. Some are disabled. The population is diverse, Fuller said, and “not enough people have enough income right now.”
Communication from the state can be confusing for SNAP users, Fuller said, and attempting to contact a caseworker can be “frustrating” in that it can take several days.
Keeping up with the rapid increase in SNAP participants has been a challenge for offices across the state, especially in rural areas, said Sue McGinn, director of the state’s food and energy division.
One problem, in which 5 percent of Coloradans on SNAP were accidentally overpaid by the state and then forced to pay back the money, has been addressed, McGinn said. In July, the state will implement new software that should improve communication.
“The program has never had a 100 percent increase in participants in such a short amount of time,” she said. “Colorado’s participation rate is still low compared to other states. We tend to be in the bottom five when ranked nationally.”
State officials remain skeptical that SNAP participation rates will return to ’07 levels any time soon.
“Once the economy gets better, I’m not expecting a huge shift back,” McGinn said. “We’re just seeing the stabilization of the program.”
I-News is the public service journalism arm of Rocky Mountain PBS