More Coloradans are receiving food assistance today than even 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.
This year the state predicts that an additional 44,000 Coloradans will sign up to receive help putting food on the table. However, the assistance available is limited.
The average SNAP household of 2.5 people receives $300 a month, or $10 a day to buy food during a typical 30-day month.
“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 like milk and produce for cheaper, less healthy alternatives, Ray said.
In some cases food banks have stepped in to assist those in need.
“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. Ocana 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,” he said.
In recent years the SNAP program has become caught in political infighting. House Republicans want to cut benefits in the name of reducing government spending, while Senate Democrats 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, about the potential for fraud. “For the majority of people on SNAP it’s humiliating and humbling.”
Before getting her position with VOICE in November, Fuller relied on SNAP benefits to help feed her family, she said.
“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,” she said.
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, “not enough people have enough income right now.”
Communication from the state can be confusing for SNAP users, she said, and attempting to contact a caseworker can be “frustrating” because 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, acknowledged Sue McGinn, director of the state’s food and energy division.
A 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.”