The Face of Hunger

Colorado is the 16th-wealthiest state in the nation. So why are so many of our neighbors still having trouble putting food on the table?

September 2007

Smells and noises evoking school cafeteria days saturate the air at Denver Rescue Mission's Lawrence Street Shelter.

Hundreds of people are eating a free Easter dinner on Good Friday—possibly the only decent meal they'll eat this weekend. A local news cameraman works the room, doing the requisite holiday charity story while politicians and media personalities in aprons serve up plates in two-hour shifts.

Some tables hold somber strangers eating hungrily, avoiding eye contact as if they don't want to be recognized. Others seat entire families—harried moms, kids, maybe a baby. Many are homeless; some are just down on their luck—a phenomenon all too common in Colorado. The most recent census data say 500,000 people in the state are "food insecure," the official euphemism for those worried about where their next meal is coming from. That half-million—more than 11 percent of the state population—stretches and scrimps, chooses cheap over nutritious foods, and often decides whether to purchase groceries or pay the electric bill. Some don't eat for consecutive days because they can't afford to buy any food.

How did a reasonably wealthy state—the 16th richest in the nation, according to the 2005 U.S. Census and the country's largest hunger relief organization, Second Harvest—end up with so many hungry people? It starts with the idea of self-sufficiency. Being self-sufficient means you adequately and consistently meet your family's needs for food, clothing, medical needs, and utilities—the essentials required to live a healthy, no-frills life. Right now, food and nutrition assistance is based on income level, not self-sufficiency standards. Government guidelines put the poverty line for a family of four at $20,650. If that same family makes $21,000, it's not considered "poor" and thus won't qualify for certain assistance. Experts suggest that a family of three in the Denver metro area needs an income of about $42,000 to be self-sufficient. "There's a fairly large number of households in Colorado that are over the poverty line but under the self-sufficiency standard," says state Representative John Kefalas, who's made it a personal mission to reduce poverty and hunger in Colorado. "They're the ones living paycheck-to-paycheck."

As part of the "Common Good Platform," Kefalas is trying to pass a self-sufficiency standard into law. It would require reassessment of individual circumstances—such as what part of the state you live in, kids' ages, and housing requirements—to determine eligibility for food aid. It's geared toward families who work but still can't make ends meet. "Many times these jobs are not paying wages that are allowing families to be self-sufficient," Kefalas says.

Even well-intentioned federal assistance programs often are inadequate. For instance, the Commodity Supplemental Food Program distributes nonperishables to almost 19,000 people in Colorado once a month, including goods such as canned beans, peanut butter, microwave popcorn, and pasta. Helpful? Yes. Enough? Unlikely. Similarly, the Food Stamp Program's average weekly allotment is a mere $25 per person. To find out how difficult it is to meet all your nutritional needs for what amounts to $3.57 a day, two local groups issued the 2007 Food Stamp Challenge in June. For one week, participants ate only what they could buy and prepare with their allotment. Kefalas and other prominent figures took the challenge to heart. "You eat simpler," he says. "You learn to appreciate lentils and potatoes a couple times over. It's a serious adjustment."

Still, $25 a week for food is far better than starving, which is why it's so unfortunate that only about half of Colorado's eligible residents participate in the Food Stamp Program. It no longer has to do with the stigma of handing over your stamps in the grocery line—they now come in credit-card form, so no one but the purchaser knows. Rather, confusion about the application procedures and rules of the program are limiting participation levels. Most Colorado counties have only one application site, without extended weekday or weekend hours, and the application is 21 pages long. The other irony is that finding a job can mean immediately losing eligibility for food assistance. Some rural Colorado residents face more basic challenges, such as a lack of access to distant grocery stores or understaffed assistance programs. In these remote counties, one-time efforts like school canned-good drives do little where the population is low and poverty is a way of life.

A host of community food pantries and hunger relief groups across the state offer some hope. The Colorado Anti-Hunger Network is backing the 2007 reauthorization of the Farm Bill, which would expand access to and eligibility for food assistance and increase allotment amounts. And in May, the governor signed into law the Smart Start Nutrition Program bill, which makes breakfast free for every child in Colorado public schools.

The first step to solving hunger may be to understand that it's everywhere, not just in the doorways on the 16th Street Mall. Coloradans experience food insecurity and hunger on many different levels, and the individuals in the next few pages come from different places and have different backgrounds. In the state's nutritional welfare system, these faces might be statistics. But here in this crowded shelter cafeteria, standing in line for holiday turkey and tiny cartons of milk, there are no graphics and percentages, just stories, waiting to be told.