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Fatuma Emmad, left, executive director and co-founder of FrontLine Farming, is joined by fellow staff and volunteers as they begin tilling the fields to prepare the soil for planting at the Majestic View Farm, Friday March 31, 2023 in Arvada. Majestic View is one of three plots cultivated by FrontLine. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A handful of volunteers stooped over a gray patch of soil at FrontLine Farming in Arvada, grooming the stubborn dirt with rakes to prepare for spring planting. Potatoes, onions, greens and root vegetables will be put in the ground later this spring to feed low-income families in the metro area.

Nearby, a small group of chickens clucked against the harsh winds rattling their pen. Bees will soon populate vacant hives and start producing honey, adding to FrontLine Farming’s stockpile of fresh food the 2-acre organic farm provides to struggling households at the edge of the economic abyss.

Frontline Farming is more than just a name, executive director and co-founder Fatuma Emmad said. Many families see FrontLine as the first and last resort for sustaining their families.

“We are the stewards of the soil and part of that is to provide food for people who are struggling now with food security,” Emmad said. “Inflation is causing people to come to us and say, ‘Oh my God, it is just getting harder and harder.’

“And we will be there for them,” she said.

FrontLine Farming produced 120 different crops in 2022, including varieties grown from organic, heirloom and climate-adjusted seeds. In all, the farm served 15,000 pounds of food to 195 families or 563 people, Kasey Neiss, the farm’s data activist and systems manager, said in an email.

The farm’s 16-week Community Supported Agriculture initiative offered vegetables and flowers from its three farm sites, as well as meats from Wild Boyd Farm in Matheson and mushrooms from Sugar Moon Mushrooms in Bennett.

At least 13 families last season paid for their CSA share with federal SNAP — Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — benefits and received discounted prices through the Double Up Food Bucks program, Neiss said. Sixty families received their CSA share at no cost through the federal Women, Infants and Children produce incentive program.

Neiss said 20% of the farm’s produce was given to food pantries, food shares and food-insecure communities. FrontLine Farming workers also helped file 298 SNAP applications in Denver, Jefferson, Adams and Arapahoe counties, she said.

Advocates say SNAP and the Double Up Food Bucks program, which allows SNAP participants to get up to $20 a day more to buy Colorado-grown fruits and vegetables, helped keep families afloat during the pandemic. 

But in 2023, both programs that helped keep families fed while they grappled with cutbacks caused by the pandemic are now diminished or in danger of being halted altogether due to shrinking funds. 

Volunteer farmers Caleb Calderwood, 2, left, and his brother Ian, 4, assist their nanny Bella Andujar, right, and fellow volunteers at Majestic View Farm as they begin tilling the fields.. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

In March, emergency SNAP benefits were cut to pre-pandemic levels meaning that an estimated 540,000 low-income families in Colorado collected on average $90 less per month than in the previous two years, advocates say. For a family of four, that amounts to about $360 a month less they can spend on food, according to a news release from U.S. Rep. Yadira Caraveo, a Thornton Democrat.

Citing statistics from the Colorado Department of Human Services, Caraveo’s office said roughly 77% of SNAP enrollees in the state are working families, people with disabilities or older people with fixed incomes. More than half of Colorado’s SNAP households include children.

Meanwhile, a $5 million, five-year federal grant used to offer incentives to farmers and retailers to continue the Double Up program through the summer is drying up.

Caraveo in April introduced a bill to extend the SNAP benefits passed in the early COVID-19 relief package. The “Keeping Families Fed Act” has no co-sponsors in Congress, but is earning support from food advocates, who say after the March cutoff more hungry families are looking to food banks and other resources for help.

The enhanced SNAP benefits allowed families to buy healthier foods and to feed their families in difficult times, Hunger Free Colorado CEO Marc Jacobson said in the Caraveo news release. “Our community members report they are now skipping meals, no longer able to purchase healthy foods and having to make tough choices between food and other necessities,” he said.

Jars filled with herbs grown at the Majestic View Farm, line the shelves inside the herbalism classroom. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Wendy Peters Moschetti, executive director of Nourish Colorado, a group seeking to increase food access across the state, said the nonprofit is applying to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for another $5 million grant that may arrive in October.

Nourish is meanwhile asking donors to raise $500,000 for the Double Up program to keep it running through the summer. “These grants are intended to be received several times — one after the other — so we feel good about our chances, but we just need to get through the summer,” Moschetti said via email.

In an email to prospective donors, Moschetti said the additional $500,000 will help keep Nourish from pausing the Double Up program. “These funds will cover incentives for 2023 to help us sustain Double Up without interruptions or cancellations — which we have unfortunately already seen happen in other states.”

High inflation is one of the factors driving up the cost of the program but the most pressing issue is the loss of the pandemic-era emergency SNAP benefits, she said in another email. ”Double Up will not be halted — but if we cannot meet the demand, the program may need to be limited or paused for a certain amount of time at some partner locations.”

Michigan — where the Double Up program began nearly 15 years ago — has had to pause the program at some partner sites, Moschetti said, “as in limit how much could be spent at their sites and/or limit the months they could offer Double Up.”

Colorado’s Double Up Food Bucks program is modeled after the Fair Food Network in Michigan, which began at five farmers markets in Detroit in 2009 and has grown to more than 150 sites across Michigan.

Colorado boasts 76 sites where Food Bucks can be used; most are farmers markets and farm stands, although there are a few permanent stores, Daysi Sweaney, director of healthy food incentives for Nourish, said via email.

They include Zuma Natural Foods in Mancos, Wild Gal’s Market in Nucla, Save A Lot stores in Colorado Springs, Greeley and Pueblo, City Park Farmers Market in Denver and the Boulder County Farmers Markets.

Nourish added a few new partners this year but not as many as hoped, Sweaney said. 

“We had over 100 applications for this season but could not accept them all due to the uncertainty of funding,” she said. “We want to make sure we can keep all our current partners funded for the rest of the year.”

Expansion is definitely a priority, Sweaney said, and Nourish wants to bring the Food Bucks program to other areas of Colorado where there is a high need.

Josh Wise, right, staff farmer and food access lead at the Majestic View Farm, is joined by fellow staff and volunteers as they begin tilling the fields to prepare the soil for planting. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Food Bucks got a test at Boulder County Farmers Markets

The Boulder County Farmers Market piloted the Food Bucks program in 2014 and found success because a slew of new customers began showing up to purchase fresh food, executive director Mackenzie Sehlke said. 

People who otherwise felt they could not afford fresh fruits and vegetables found easy and affordable access at the farmers market through Food Bucks and other initiatives aimed at low-income families, Sehlke said.

“There is still that thinking out there that farmers markets are more expensive so many families don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables,” she said. “But as we got the word out, we were able to broaden the diversity among our customers. We and our farmers started to build a relationship with our community and those new customers started coming back week after week.”

“Farmers love to feed people,” she added. “And Food Bucks got them even more people to feed.”

The Food Bucks program in Boulder County — funded by the county, the city of Boulder and Nourish Colorado — helped fuel growth in SNAP dollars spent at local markets, according to a Boulder County Farmers Markets news release.

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Last year was the SNAP program’s most robust deployment in markets, with $274,000 SNAP dollars spent including matching funds. Boulder County Farmers Markets estimates that money was spent by 3,000 people at markets in Boulder and Longmont, a third of whom were kids facing food insecurity. 

Even with cutbacks in SNAP, people in Boulder County will still be able to double their money, up to $20 per visit using Food Bucks.

Organic farmer Kacey Kropp said he and his family have long accepted Food Bucks discounts at the Boulder and Longmont farmers markets. It makes good business sense to do so, Kropp said.

“We’ve had only positive experiences with these programs,” said Kropp, whose family grows peaches, cherries and grapes on 100 acres in Paonia.

“It opens the market to other people and gets them to check out what we have,” he said. “It’s to our advantage to participate.”

Both SNAP and Food Bucks helped keep Elizabeth Strzok’s pantry full during the pandemic. “I was able to get good healthy food that keeps me going,” 70-year-old Strzok said.

She used her Food Bucks stipend for fruits and vegetables while spending another $20 on oils and other food items at the Boulder County Farmers Market and Whole Foods, Strzok said. Her food budget with supplements from Food Bucks was about $300 a month, she said.

Even with cuts in SNAP, she will still use Food Bucks to get nutritious food. “I also will be helping out local farmers by buying their products,” she said. “I love doing that. I love our farmers.”

CORRECTION: This story was updated at 3:08 p.m. on Thursday, May 4, 2023, to correct a typo in the spelling of Yadira Caraveo’s name.

Using her handy pitchfork, volunteer Hilary Gabso digs into planting beds at Majestic View Farm. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @monteWhaley