Volunteers help distribute food at a Food Bank of the Rockies mobile food pantry on Saturday, Aug. 26, 2023 in Aurora, Colorado. (Lindsey Toomer/Colorado Newsline)
Food banks and pantries in Colorado are feeling the pressure of increased demand as more people are experiencing food insecurity amid high inflation and reduced government benefits.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many families have relied on expanded monthly benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a federal program that provides food aid to low-income families. But those SNAP emergency allotments ended on March 1, drastically reducing the aid families receive and the number of eligible recipients.
Nearly 1 in 10 Coloradans struggle with food insecurity, according to U.S. Rep. Yadira Caraveo, a Thornton Democrat, and the end of extended SNAP benefits has only made the situation worse.
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“What I’ve heard from people is that that was just a devastating blow to them in terms of the amount that they had to work with to get food, especially fresh fruits and vegetables,” Caraveo told Newsline.
Carmen Mooradian, policy and advocacy coordinator at Hunger Free Colorado, said her organization has heard from SNAP recipients that their benefits don’t last the entire month, and that they’re being forced to skip meals and buy lower-quality foods.
“Many SNAP participants are having to make difficult choices between food and other basic needs like utility bills, rent, medicine,” Mooradian said. “That return to current benefit levels has highlighted just how inadequate current benefit levels are, and it’s been really hurting our community members.”
The food pantry at Growing Home, a Westminster nonprofit supporting local families, has seen a “huge uptick” in demand since SNAP cuts in March, said Whitney Leeds, the organization’s advocacy and community organizing manager. She also said private donations that increased during the peak of the COVID pandemic have slowed down.
“It’s arguably worse now than it was during the pandemic because food costs have absolutely exploded,” Leeds said. “It’s just a lot more challenging across the board for us to support households in meeting their daily food needs.”
Growing Home had to start restricting how many times each family can come to its food pantries each month, as well as how much food they can take, because of how high demand has gotten, Leeds said.
‘Not really sustainable’
Sarah Gregory Mason, government relations manager at Feeding Colorado, said her organization relies heavily on another federal program, the Emergency Food Assistance Program, which provides between 20% and 40% of the food on the shelves at its five food banks across the state. Some of those locations have extended their hours to try and meet increased demand this year.
“My five food banks are under a lot of sustained high demand, especially since the end of the SNAP emergency allotments,” Gregory Mason said. “So what’s happening is they are having to purchase more food than ever before, and our food banks were not set up to purchase at that level. It’s just not really sustainable for us.”
Aditi Desai, chief marketing officer for Food Bank of the Rockies, said their mobile food pantries alone have seen a 40% to 60% increase in attendance compared to this time last year.
Food Bank of the Rockies has four distribution centers, but also partners with over 800 other organizations that distribute food and runs its own mobile pantries in areas of high need. They are able to purchase food at more affordable prices in larger quantities because of partnerships in manufacturing, grocery stores and agriculture.
It's not like you can skip your utility bills, but unfortunately, people can skip a meal, which is really challenging and from a nutrition and health standpoint.
– Aditi Desai of Food Bank of the Rockies
“A lot of times, the most flexibility people have in their budgets is around food, unfortunately, and so it becomes more normal to skip a meal and then pay your utility bills,” Desai said. “It’s not like you can skip your utility bills, but unfortunately, people can skip a meal, which is really challenging and from a nutrition and health standpoint.”
To try and keep up with the demand, Desai said the Food Bank of the Rockies is spending triple what it spent pre-COVID. Its monthly spending has reached $1.5 million because of increasing food prices, even with enough discounts to provide 30 meals for every $10.
“The last thing we want to do as an organization is say no to somebody who is in need, and so for us, being able to really step up and ensure that everyone has the food they need to thrive and to really get the nourishment they and their families need is essential for us,” Desai said.
Desai said there are many misconceptions around people experiencing hunger, but she said COVID showed that hunger can hit anyone at any time. Many of the people coming to food banks in recent months have been going for the first time, simply because of how hard people are feeling the effects of inflation.
“The rate of salaries might not be going up in parallel to how inflation is currently working,” Desai said.
Lacy Wilcox came to one of the Food Bank of the Rockies’ mobile pantries in Aurora on a Saturday in late August with her husband and five-year-old daughter. With seven mouths to feed at home including their kids and her elderly parents, Wilcox said coming to the food bank helps them save where they can amid increasing inflation.
“Just with some health issues and bills and stuff like that, sometimes I don’t know how we’re going to make it, and so having this is kind of a last resort,” Wilcox said. “At least we have some food, and now we can put that money toward gas for getting to and from work and school.”
Wilcox said her family is in a tougher spot now than they were during the peak of the pandemic. Even though her husband’s job is their sole source of income, they still make too much to qualify for any kind of food assistance programs. She said whatever the government can do to lower prices for basic necessities like food and gas would be helpful.
Crystal Kettelson, who lives in Northglenn, came back to the food pantry at Growing Home in late August for the first time since before the pandemic. She lives with her boyfriend and one other roommate; all three work minimum-wage jobs, and buying groceries at cheaper stores like Walmart has become too much for them to keep up with.
“It’s just beneficial because minimum-wage jobs are really hard to live off of and pay rent, so I’m going to be doing the food bank so that I can live,” Kettelson said. “Eating healthy is so expensive… so to be able to go to a food bank and actually get sustainable food that will last me a little bit is very exciting.”
Dulce Torrez is a single mother of two from Westminster who came to Growing Home’s food pantry to make sure her kids are fed. Her SNAP benefits were cut in March from $230 per month to $150 per month. It’s also been hard for her to keep a permanent job because she has to be flexible in her ability to reach her kids as their primary caretaker.
“Honestly, I don’t care about me,” Torrez said. “I’m concerned about my kids and what they eat.”
Both Kettelson and Torrez said the high prices for basic life essentials has made it difficult for them to keep up. Kettelson said if she doesn’t stick to the exact budget she goes into a grocery store with, she won’t be able to afford rent that month. They also agreed that having access to higher paying jobs would greatly ease their stress in affording basic necessities.
Farm bill negotiations
Desai said government programs like SNAP and the Emergency Food Assistance Program need to be well funded in order to keep up with the need. The funding for these programs comes from the farm bill, which is renegotiated by Congress once every five years.
Working on the farm bill as a member of the House Agriculture Committee, Caraveo said she’s optimistic given that committee chair Glenn Thompson, a Pennsylvania Republican, has said he doesn’t anticipate adding work requirements for SNAP in committee.
“I think overall, this has always been a bipartisan bill, and I really hope (Republicans) stick to that bipartisanship,” Caraveo said. “They haven’t really done it with some of the other appropriations bills that have come through and that have classically been bipartisan as well, so we’ll see.”
In a visit to Colorado last month, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries also committed to passing the farm bill in a bipartisan way with continued support for charitable food organizations and assistance benefits.
Caraveo introduced several bills that would increase funding for federal food assistance programs, one that would extend the emergency allotment and another that would better support people transitioning off of extended benefits. She also is proud that in the debt ceiling bill, exemptions for work requirements were extended so people experiencing homelessness and foster youth could qualify for food benefits.
“The biggest thing is that we keep in mind that any further cuts to SNAP would be even more devastating to families,” Caraveo said. “We’re not talking about much money that they already get — it’s about $6 per person per day. I know that when we look at the budget as a whole, it seems like a lot of money, but this has historically been a big part of the farm bill.”
Congress is considering one policy that would allow SNAP recipients to purchase hot foods with their benefits — which U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet is leading in the Senate — and another that would allow college students to access SNAP, Caraveo said.
Leeds said she wants to see additional support for food pantries and organizations like hers that provide direct support to families and individuals of the highest needs, as their current methods are not sustainable long term. She said she’d also love to see the SNAP emergency allotments become permanent and for SNAP workers to be paid higher, competitive wages.
“We need the scale of food relief funding for food banks and food pantries that actually comes close to meeting what our needs are,” Leeds said. “We don’t have even remotely the scale of funding that would come close to meeting that, and what it ends up meaning is that individual nonprofits have to rely on the private sector for donations.”
Mooradian agreed that anything Congress can do with the farm bill to increase benefit levels for all SNAP participants would greatly reduce the burden families are feeling.
“If we’re really going to address this problem, we need to invest in SNAP,” Mooradian said. “Because when people are food insecure, that doesn’t just hurt those individual households. It has larger effects on our economy or agriculture, and so we really need to think about addressing food insecurity as an investment in our larger society in the economy.”
Food Bank of the Rockies’ website has a food pantry locator where anyone in the service region, including Colorado, can enter their zip code to find nearby resources. Hunger Free Colorado also offers a food resource hotline and food finder tool. Coloradans can also call 211 to connect with food resources.
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