This month, Coloradans enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program had their benefits slashed.
Congress passed the Consolidated Appropriations Act, ending SNAP Emergency Allotments for Colorado and every other participating state after February this year. These Emergency Allotments, introduced at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, increased the amount of SNAP dollars families could use to buy groceries.
But now after three years of increased help, those benefits are going away. For a family of three who earn $1,000 a month in income, their SNAP benefits will be cut by almost half, from $740 a month to $440.
Ending COVID-era relief might seem to make sense if the pandemic is at the “transition point” the World Health Organization declared in January. The flaw in this thinking, however, is that hunger has not gone away.
I work at Metro Caring, an anti-hunger organization in Denver, where we welcome the community to shop in our free grocery store-style Fresh Foods Market. Before the pandemic, we welcomed an average of 580 households a week, which increased to 1,280 households a week in 2020. Last week, we had 800 households use our services — 137% of what we experienced pre-pandemic.
The number of people needing to rely on food pantries has not returned to pre-pandemic levels. Why would we take away the additional SNAP benefits that are helping families stock their pantries, fill their refrigerators, and put food on the table?
This cut will force more people to rely on hunger relief organizations and food pantries. But the charitable food sector is not the same as having SNAP benefits.
At a food pantry, the available food choices vary greatly from day-to-day. The food on the shelves depends on what donations we receive and what funding we have to purchase additional items.
Too often those choices can be unhealthy, cheap, sugary foods that lead to diet-related diseases, adding more of a burden to people already limited on resources. One of our shoppers recently told the Glenwood Springs Post Independent that they cut back on their blood-pressure medication to save money.
In contrast, SNAP puts money in your pocket to purchase the foods you want and need.
Food pantries are generally less accessible in rural areas. At Metro Caring, we have people travel more than 30 miles to visit our Denver market. How many grocery stores do you think they pass on their way here? (The answer is more than a dozen for our shoppers who come from Bennett.)
SNAP allows you to shop at the places closest and most convenient to you, at local grocery stores and farmer’s markets. This also means more money flowing through the economy and supporting local farmers and grocers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that SNAP dollars return 150% in economic activity — that’s $1.50 to the economy for every $1 of SNAP benefits.
Food pantries are also limited in hours and capacity. At Metro Caring, we can offer a full shopping trip only once a month, whereas SNAP allotments are delivered right to EBT cards that work at more than 3,000 retail locations in Colorado.
I’m proud of the work that we do at food banks, pantries, and nonprofit organizations. But picking up food from a charity is not the same as getting to go to a grocery store. SNAP gives families more power to decide what they need, where they want, and on their own time.
A lot of dedicated coalitions and organizations here in Colorado are working to make equitable food access a reality for everyone in our state. We need politicians to do the same: continue increased SNAP benefits and step up to demonstrate they care for their constituents.
Let’s be clear. SNAP is not an end-all solution to hunger. Many SNAP recipients in Colorado have jobs and still can’t afford food. That means people aren’t making a livable wage. Additionally, a Coloradan only receives $1.76 per meal on average in SNAP benefits. At Safeway this week, that’s one box of pasta, but not the sauce. It’s a can of beans, but not rice.
Ending hunger means addressing all the reasons people can’t afford food: unaffordable housing, inaccessible healthcare, the racial wealth gap, and the exclusion of groups of people based on race, ability, citizenship, and gender.
While we work for a better tomorrow, our community is going to lean on food banks, pantries, and other nonprofit services today. As the demand for services like the ones we offer at Metro Caring increase, we’re grateful to have volunteers and donors that keep things running.
In addition to voting for better policies, you can help your community today by volunteering at your local food pantry or nonprofit. We all could use some extra help—especially after a very cold winter that begged us to stay inside—and our community needs you!
Erik Hicks, of Denver, is the CEO-Integrator at Metro Caring, an anti-hunger organization in Denver.