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A new White House goal to dramatically change food assistance programs could undercut Colorado’s five-year plan to end hunger. The average participant in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—known as food stamps—receives about $1.40 per meal. Yet even that modest amount can make a world of difference for Coloradans struggling with food insecurity and hunger, says Denver resident and SNAP enrollee Andrea Fuller.
New USDA data released this week shows that Colorado ranks just 45th in the nation for enrollment in SNAP, down from the previous year’s ranking of 44th. With only 58 percent of eligible Coloradans enrolling in SNAP, the state falls well below the national average of 75 percent, with two in five eligible Coloradans leaving assistance on the table.
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Before she started using food stamps, Fuller, a working single mom with two children, says grocery shopping was a series of heartbreaking choices. With a weekly budget of $50, including non-grocery items like toilet paper, toothpaste, and diapers for her son, Fuller would limit her shopping trip to just the most basic necessities..
Then she would stand over her basket, calculator in hand, deciding which of those necessities to keep and which ones to return to the shelf. Should she choose the milk or the rice? The cheese or the ham? The produce or the peanut butter? “Those are the kinds of decisions that I was facing on a regular basis,” said Fuller. “It’s one of the most stressful and guilt-inducing experiences you can go through.”
With one in 10 Coloradans struggling with food insecurity, in January, a coalition of organizations across the state launched a Blueprint to End Hunger—a five-year plan developed with funding from the Colorado Health Foundation to ensure that every Coloradan can access affordable healthy food. A part of the plan includes enrolling more people in SNAP.
Ending hunger in Colorado is a solvable problem, says Katharine Ferguson, public policy director for Hunger Free Colorado. But she says the solution relies on citizen engagement at local, state, and national levels. “Building political will is essential,” says Ferguson. “It all starts with citizens.”
Complicating that effort, President Trump unveiled a 2019 budget proposal this week that slashed spending for federal safety net programs, including a massive $213 billion reduction to SNAP (nearly 30 percent) over 10 years, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). The cuts are intended to offset the combined impact of revenue losses from the $1.5 trillion tax cut passed by Congressional Republicans in late 2017, and a $500 billion spending deal signed by President Trump last week.
The White House is also proposing a fundamental redesign of SNAP. Rather than allowing participants to use benefits like cash to shop at grocery stores and farmers markets, the government would do the shopping instead. Some 80 percent of SNAP participants would receive half their benefits in the form of boxed food deliveries, which White House budget director Mick Mulvaney described as a “Blue Apron-type program.”
But unlike the meal kits delivered by Blue Apron, which include fresh foods and allow customers to choose their own meals, the government-purchased food boxes would contain only nonperishable items. Uncle Sam’s “America’s Harvest Box” would include canned meat, canned fruits and vegetables, shelf-stable milk, juice, grains, ready-to-eat cereals, pasta, peanut butter, and beans. The changes could make it harder for participants to meet dietary needs and harm Colorado’s food retailers: According to the CBPP, SNAP benefits added $728 million to the state economy in 2016.
A local obstacle to increasing SNAP enrollment is that Colorado administers the program at the county level, with widely varied procedures. The system was so ineffective that Colorado was charged a $1 million fine for misspending federal funds in 2015. State legislators who wrote the hefty check unanimously passed a bipartisan bill in 2016 to improve the effectiveness of food assistance and hold counties more accountable for SNAP enrollments.
Another challenge is the fierce independence that makes many Coloradans unwilling to ask for help. “I didn’t apply for SNAP until I was absolutely desperate, and at the point where I was skipping meals or eating less,” says Fuller. “Then I had this breakdown moment where I was sitting on my kitchen floor, and I looked at my pantry and my fridge, and I realized that I didn’t have enough food to feed my kids.”
In recent years, Colorado has prioritized ending childhood hunger. The state dramatically increased participation in the federal School Breakfast Program, rising from 44th to 12th in the nation. A new bill introduced in the state legislature in 2018 would additionally expand a K-5 free lunch program to students through eighth grade. Now advocates want to do more to help adults, including the one in 10 Colorado seniors struggling with hunger, and the 36 percent of food-insecure adults who earn too much to receive SNAP and rely on community food banks.
“When we make ending hunger a priority, we have demonstrated that we can get it done,” says Ferguson. “And we can do it again.”