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Food-assistance requests keep soaring in Colorado despite slowing coronavirus unemployment claims

Nearly 70,000 more Coloradans received SNAP benefits in April compared to March. State officials expect that number to continue to climb during the coronavirus crisis.

Clayton Early Learning research associate Jenna Gottschalk picks out fresh food packages to distribute to waiting cars during a food and supplies distribution at the Clayton Early Learning campus on April 17, 2020, in Denver's Clayton neighborhood. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Colorado families were struggling with food insecurity before the coronavirus crisis hit the state. 

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Now, the state and advocacy organizations are scrambling to try to keep up with the flood of food assistance requests they’ve received in the wake of job losses and soaring unemployment claims.

“One of the things that the coronavirus pandemic has really highlighted is it’s put a lot of attention on food access, which has been a crisis for a really long time,” said Erin Ulric, implementation director for the organization Colorado Blueprint to End Hunger, which is funded by the Colorado Health Foundation. “Prior to the pandemic, we were looking at about one in every 11 people were struggling with this issue.”

Ulric said the data is still emerging in terms of how much the need for food assistance has increased since the pandemic first hit. “But we’re looking at over 40% of families in Colorado right now are food insecure. So, obviously there’s been a significant increase.”

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Colorado’s SNAP program saw a 15% increase from March to April

In April, Colorado saw a 15% increase in the number of Coloradans utilizing SNAP benefits to buy groceries compared to the previous month –– from 439,355 people using the benefit to 507,074. And since applications take up to 30 days to process, the Colorado Department of Human Services is expecting that number to spike even higher in the coming months. 

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, is part of a federal nutrition program to help lower-income households access nutritious food. Money gets transferred onto an Electronic Benefit Transfer card, which is issued by the Department of Human Services. The funds can be used at most grocery stores and some farmers markets. The federal government pays 100% of SNAP benefits, and federal and state governments share the administrative costs of the program.

A woman loads milk and groceries into her car at the Larimer Food Bank on Friday, April 17, 2020 in Fort Collins, Colo. (Photo by Joe Mahoney/Special to the Colorado Trust)

On May 6, the U.S. Department of Agriculture gave the greenlight to allow Colorado SNAP recipients to order groceries online.

In order to qualify for the SNAP program, and other public benefits, a person must provide identification, proof of citizenship status, a Social Security number (or proof that they have applied for one), and proof of household income.

“It is important to note that prior to this sudden economic downturn, our SNAP numbers were slowly decreasing due to the strong Colorado economy,” said Madlynn Ruble, a spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Human Services. 

MORE: Colorado college students, upended by coronavirus, are worried about food, housing and their education

Ruble said during the previous economic downturn, SNAP households increased for a number of years. She said recent regulatory changes have helped remove barriers for people trying to access food assistance.

“We have taken advantage of more than 12 waivers or options to reduce barriers that people may experience when applying as well as reduce the administrative burden when a worker is processing an application so that it can be completed as quickly as possible,” Ruble said, adding that some of those changes include eliminating interview requirements, allowing telephonic signatures, and requiring only certain verifications.

Despite increases in state efforts, advocacy groups are trying to fill the remaining gaps

Since the coronavirus crisis hit, it’s been an all-hands-on-deck approach when it comes to food insecurity.

In late March, an emergency food network sprouted in Denver that so far has cooked and delivered nearly 200,000 free meals to hungry and homebound Coloradans throughout the metro area. 

Don Mattice, right, of Denver, receives donated frozen food items from Kim Furuta, left, a Church of the Risen Christ member volunteering at a Food Bank of the Rockies “mobile pantry” food distribution outside Church of the Risen Christ on March 12, 2020, in Denver. (Andy Colwell, special to the Colorado Sun)

Food pantries and No-Cost Grocery programs across the state have ramped up their efforts and purchased additional food when donations took a nosedive. Denver Public Schools continued to provide meals for students and families during the crisis. 

Colorado Blueprint to End Hunger started an emergency hunger relief fund in collaboration with a handful of funders from across the state. So far, they’ve distributed $2.6 million in funding to organizations across Colorado that are trying to fill the gaps and provide food for struggling families.

Ulric said the emergency grants they are providing will help meet immediate needs, but organizations need more state and federal support to meet food assistance needs. Her organization is working to try to leverage FEMA purchasing dollars to funnel food directly into counties and communities that need it.

She said the coronavirus is highlighting existing inequities in the food system, specifically, who typically gets left out of services. “Your immigrant and refugee populations, for sure,” Ulric said. 

“Food doesn’t exist in a silo. So when people qualify for things like unemployment or housing assistance, those things make a difference in people’s ability to afford food,” she said. “And so when people are excluded from those systems, the need just grows greater. So I think we’re seeing the same things we saw before, but I think we’re seeing them exacerbated.”

Hopes for a better food system

Ricardo Rocha, the founder and CEO of Bondadosa, a food delivery service focused on food access, said he hopes the new attention to food insecurity brings change.

Rocha’s organization is one of five founding members of the newly formed Denver Metro Emergency Food Network. His team has been delivering hot and ready free meals to families around the metro area during the crisis. He said in the past few weeks they’ve seen a slight decrease in the number of requests for help.

Volunteers for Bondadosa, a food delivery service focused on food access, load up food to be delivered to Coloradans in the Denver Metro area. (Provided photo)

“That first month was incredibly fear-inducing and anxiety-inducing as folks lost their jobs and became more and more food insecure. But now, we’ve seen a small percentage of folks reach out to the network and say, ‘You know what, I think I have enough and we’d like to pass this resource off to somebody else.’”

But since the network stopped taking new requests at the beginning of May to ensure that it could remain sustainable, Rocha thinks the need is still high. “I think if we had an online form where people could sign up, then we would see a much greater need,” he said.

MORE: How an emergency food network grew out of the coronavirus crisis to deliver 90,000 free meals to Coloradans

He said his organization and others that rely on donations have seen a decrease in philanthropy as the coronavirus has progressed. The trend makes him nervous. “These dollars come from revenues and endowments and things that are generating wealth. But when the world stops, so do those funds,” Rocha said.

Rocha said he’s seen an inspiring increase in empathy in the community.

“We saw people who may have never needed food assistance in the past, need food assistance for the first time,” Rocha said. “And then they said, ‘You know what? I no longer need this. Please give it to somebody else.’ And that fills me with hope.”


Food Assistance Resource List

  • Map of all food pantries in the Denver Metro area. 
  • Colorado Department of Human Services Food Assistance Program.
  • Denver Food Rescue’s Comprehensive Resource List
  • Resource list from the Food Bank of the Rockies, which have partner agencies in 30 Colorado counties. Their Food Resource Hotline is 855-855-4626.
  • Do you need help getting essential items but are sick, in a high risk group or have been exposed to COVID-10? The Denver Delivery Network can shop for you. (You still buy the groceries.)
  • If you need help finding resources, call 2-1-1, the state’s confidential and multilingual service connecting people with resources across the state.