• Original Reporting
  • Sources Cited
Original Reporting This article contains new, firsthand information uncovered by its reporter(s). This includes directly interviewing sources and research / analysis of primary source documents.
Sources Cited As a news piece, this article cites verifiable, third-party sources which have all been thoroughly fact-checked and deemed credible by the Newsroom in accordance with the Civil Constitution.

When Lisa Stevens submitted an application to renew her federal food assistance in September 2022, she noticed an error in her paperwork.

On the application, a Mesa County official had accidentally added $400 to her monthly gross income and 16 extra hours of work, making her ineligible for help from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP.

“It took seven months for them to resolve it,” Stevens said by phone Aug. 22. “Once they have deemed you unapproved, they’re done and they don’t want to be questioned, and they won’t respond to emails or phone calls.”

But Stevens kept calling the local human services office, and after seven months, an administrator answered. After reviewing her paperwork, the administrator called back and said someone at the office made a mistake and that Stevens was reapproved for SNAP benefits. She was also paid for the seven months of benefits she did not receive due to the error.

“I was in utter shock because I had been battling with them for seven months trying to figure out, in the midst of the pandemic, how am I going to put food on the table,” Stevens said. “It was ridiculous the amount of time and energy I had to spend to just try to get by.”

For years, Coloradans have struggled to understand and complete cumbersome SNAP applications. Some applicants said it took months to receive a notice denying or approving their request for benefits and that while they waited, they relied on local food banks and nonprofits that are still struggling to meet the increased demand for services following the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Groceries that a low-income family can buy with P-EBT benefits or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits are shown. (Provided by Hunger Free Colorado)

Applicants who speak English as a second language have said there are too few bilingual interpreters who can help them navigate the SNAP application process. And some Coloradans have received notices stating they were accidentally overpaid by the SNAP program. Federal law states that even if the error was a county administrative one, the recipient must pay back the money they were ineligible to receive. 

Counties vary in how much effort and time they put into investigating new applicants and enrollees in SNAP and how many cases they refer for criminal prosecution because of suspected fraud, said Bethany Pray, legal director at the Colorado Center on Law and Policy, who works on removing barriers to SNAP access. 

“We have heard from community members that they have felt intimidated by questioning,” she said. “You don’t want to be constantly questioned about (citizenship) status or taking vacations. They’re not supposed to ask those things, but because the culture varies from county to county, it does happen.”

Now, advocates at Colorado human services organizations say the state’s SNAP program, which is administered on a county level, is flawed. Each county department of human services has its own policies, paperwork, business practices and procedures — and a different level of resources and staff, she said. 

The SNAP program is a part of a federal nutrition program to help people and families with low incomes purchase food. County human services departments are responsible for determining eligibility and administering SNAP.

But advocates said it’s worth studying whether the state could administer the program more efficiently and fairly. A state-administered system would mean SNAP recipients could get the same forms and letters, and they might have centralized numbers to call when they need help with applications. There could also be lower turnover rates among caseworkers or perhaps more access to bilingual interpreters, Pray said.

Streamlining the process could also help ensure some of the most vulnerable people in the state are receiving equitable access to food, she said.

Four human services leaders interviewed for this story said a state-administered SNAP program would alleviate some of the disparities they’ve seen such as the long time it takes for some county departments to respond to new SNAP applications and paperwork to renew benefits. However, a transition from a county administered system to a statewide one would be a long, complicated and expensive process, they said.

Colorado’s county administered system

Ten states, including Colorado, have state-supervised and county-administered systems, said Karla Maraccini, director of the Food and Energy Assistance Division for the Colorado Department of Human Services, which oversees the SNAP program. 

County-administered systems are about 30% more expensive than state-administered systems, according to a Colorado joint budget committee hearing in December.

Some county human services offices are struggling with high staff turnover and they’re burning through caseworkers rapidly, said Joël McClurg, integration director at the Colorado Blueprint to End Hunger. McClurg was formerly the SNAP compliance officer at the Colorado Department of Human Services. 

Some SNAP recipients who are frustrated by tricky applications, administrative errors and long wait times for a callback decide it’s not worth applying to renew their benefits every six months, he said. 

SNAP enrollment data relies on census estimates, which have a high margin of error in smaller counties, and so it can be tricky to draw conclusions about why some communities struggle more than others to get benefits to their community members.

“But what you do overwhelmingly see, is there’s higher program access, or higher rates of enrollment in counties with lower per capita income,” he said. “And my best guess as to why that is, and I’ve thought about this a lot, is it’s not that county practices are necessarily better in counties with higher enrollment rates — because some counties with low enrollment rates have really good customer service practices. The difference is, word of mouth is the No. 1 driver for SNAP.”

In communities with a higher number of people enrolled in SNAP, residents tend to collectively have a better understanding of the program and how to enroll. In wealthier counties, community knowledge about benefits programs “doesn’t really exist,” he said. And so, people with lower incomes often feel like they’re on an island in regard to their financial circumstances and they may not apply for benefits because they’re embarrassed, or because they don’t know that they are eligible, he said.

Huerfano, Prowers, Las Animas, Fremont and Costilla counties had the highest number of people enrolled in the SNAP program from 2015 to 2019, respectively, according to a Colorado Center on Law and Policy analysis of data from the Colorado Department of Human Services and the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. Pitkin, Summit, Eagle, Grand and San Miguel counties had the lowest enrollment rates or program access, respectively, according to the analysis. 

The counties with the highest program access have some of the highest poverty rates in the state and are located in the eastern and south-central parts of Colorado. The counties with the lowest participation in SNAP are in tourist-dependent areas and likely have seasonal employees who might be hard to enroll or keep enrolled in SNAP, said Charles Brennan, deputy director of research at the Colorado Center on Law and Policy, which advocates for people receiving SNAP benefits.

One factor at play in the mountain resort counties is seasonal workers, or temporary workers in tourism, for example, are more likely to have lower incomes and be eligible for SNAP, but they have lower enrollment rates because they are more transient, harder to reach and keep enrolled and may have a constantly changing or seasonal income, he said. 

Census data for counties that had a margin of error of 50% or more were not included in CCLP’s analysis. The data accounts for differences in relative incomes in counties across the state.

In Pitkin County, caseworkers are not struggling to respond to new and renewing SNAP applicants in a timely fashion, said Samuel Landercasper, interim director of the Pitkin County Department of Human Services.

Caseworkers are more challenged by SNAP’s strict and outdated income eligibility requirements, he said. 

“What’s frustrating for people is they need help and then find out that the federal income limits say they make too much money even though they’re having a hard time even getting their rent paid,” he said.

The vast majority of people who approach Pitkin County for help don’t qualify for SNAP, but are still well below the level of income that would make them self-sufficient, he said.

Pitkin County hired a bilingual outreach specialist who travels around the community to identify people who would be eligible for SNAP benefits. 

“What we run into is — because of the cost of living in Pitkin County, if you have a job, you are making too much money to enroll in SNAP,” Landercasper said.

Many older adults who would qualify, for example, say they don’t want to go through the cumbersome application process to only get about $20 per month, the minimum SNAP benefit allotment, he said.

The federal government has proposed new income limits in 2024 that would allow a single-person household earning just over $1,500 per month to access SNAP benefits. That amount is about the same as the cost to rent a room or studio apartment in Pitkin County and the surrounding area, Landercasper said.

About 260 people are receiving SNAP in Pitkin County, which has a population of 17,300. Most of those recipients have been recently laid off or are chronically homeless and unemployed, he said.

The federal government must modernize income eligibility limits to ensure they realistically meet the need and can help close the food insecurity gap, he added.

“The program is great. I just think it hasn’t changed much with the times,” he said.

“Just giving people enough not to starve is not a solution; it’s a Band-Aid,” he said. “You need to address an issue with a reasonable attempt to solve the problem. If you can get people to self-sufficiency, they will transition off of needing help from these programs over time.” 

Counties and states don’t have the ability to change income eligibility limits for SNAP, he said. So Pitkin County is working with local food organizations to increase access to food through mobile pantries and food distribution centers, he said.

Almost three hours away in the Summit County mountain community, people there are also unwilling to apply for SNAP for the minimum allotment of $23 per month, said Tamara Pogue, a Summit County commissioner.

“We can’t expect families to go through the process of enrollment and the complexities of enrollment if the end return is $23 for them in a community like Summit County where a single family rents for like $2,000 a month,” she said.

“We have never been able to move the needle in the way that we’d like to move the needle,” she said. “But it is essential that we get this figured out for the viability of our community and the folks that live in our community.”

Access to SNAP benefits is a high priority for Summit County because it can be a pathway out of situational poverty for some families and is essential for maintaining parts of the local workforce, she said.

The county needs to get out and talk with people to learn how to change the program to make SNAP a process that feels safe and comfortable, she said. And data gathering should be improved to make it more accurate.

“This is an incredibly important conversation that we need to have because these are really important benefits to folks,” she said. “But I hope we will have this conversation in a way that really thinks about all of the different dynamics and barriers and that we will come out on the other side with policies that really do help folks become more sustainable.”

Varying degrees of timeliness

Under-enrollment has far-reaching effects on people already struggling to make ends meet, Pray said, but there are other economic impacts, too. Every SNAP dollar spent generates about $1.50 in local economic activity, she said. So, if counties are under-enrolling people in SNAP, those residents are not able to access the benefits they need and they cannot help stimulate their local economy by spending federal dollars in nearby establishments, she said.

A low enrollment rate means a county has a high number of people who are likely eligible for SNAP but aren’t being served by the program, Brennan said. 

The Colorado Department of Human Services is the state agency responsible for overseeing SNAP. The department monitors compliance, interprets how federal policy applies at the local level, provides technical assistance to counties, creates rules for SNAP and is the custodian of some SNAP data, Maraccini said. 

Counties are responsible for hiring and supervising staff and handling food assistance requests, she said.

The Colorado Department of Human Services is aware of “varying degrees in processing timeliness among counties,” which is often created by a county department’s workload, hiring and vacancy rates and other factors, Maraccini wrote in an email.

The Colorado Department of Human Services offers help to local governments, such as technical assistance, she said in an email. “We cannot comment on situations in individual counties,” she wrote.

Melissa Schierland, division director of economic assistance for the Mesa County Department of Human Services, said all counties in Colorado are facing similar challenges with SNAP administration. 

Since the pandemic, there has been an increase in SNAP applications and caseloads in Mesa County and a shortage of trained staff. When the division is fully staffed, there are 83 employees for 11,000 families or individuals receiving SNAP, she said. 

On Aug. 30, the department had 78 staff members for about 11,000 clients, she wrote in an email that day. It typically takes four to six months for staff to become operational and one year for them to become fully proficient at administering benefits, she wrote.  

“Colorado has the highest SNAP caseload in its history right now since the pandemic,” she added. “We’re working diligently to process their applications. We did have a backlog at one time but we’ve taken many steps to address that. We’ve hired additional staff. And in terms of callbacks, we’ve started a call center here.”

Mesa County entered into a state waiver program that allows it to process SNAP applications without an interview to help caseworkers improve timeliness. “We have created a customer service team because we want to have customers receive more timely service and feedback,” she said.

In Mesa County, the public health department, the workforce center and the department of human services are on the same campus, a benefit of the county-administered system, she said. 

SNAP overpayments

LaQuetta Walker began receiving SNAP benefits in April 2016 when she moved to Englewood from Michigan. In November 2020, she received a letter from the state saying she received more money in food benefits than she was eligible for from June 2020 until October 2020 because of an administrative error. She owed $1,436, the letter says.

When she appealed, a judge told Walker he had overseen many SNAP overpayment cases. “The appeal process is a joke because they don’t even try to work with you and it’s still your fault even if it’s not your fault,” Walker said.

“I think it’s so inconsiderate that they wrote this statute, because if it’s a valid administrative error, then why is it my fault that I have to pay it back when I did everything I was supposed to do?” she said by phone on Aug. 23. “I have utilized services only when I need it and I needed it because we moved here homeless and I was recovering from an auto accident.”

After the appeals process, Colorado Center on Law and Policy leaders asked Walker to help law students at the University of Denver create a SNAP overpayments navigator to assist others navigating the complex administrative court system while appealing SNAP overpayment decisions.

LaQuetta Walker applied for SNAP benefits when she moved to Colorado in April 2016. Four years later, she received a notice from the state saying she received more money in food benefits than she was eligible for. She owed $1,436, the letter said. She and other Coloradans who have received overpayment letters have said it’s unfair a federal statute requires them to pay the money back even if the error was an administrative one.

Some families in Colorado have had to take out personal loans to pay back food benefit overpayments, McClurg said. “It’s one of the darkest elements of the SNAP program.”

Arapahoe County has some of the same challenges as many other counties in the state such as a high volume of cases and capped funding, said Anders Nelson, public information officer for Arapahoe County. 

He wouldn’t comment specifically on Walker’s case but said the organization is meeting the challenge in Arapahoe County by processing applications in a timely manner.

“It’s very important for us that we are providing the highest standard of support possible,” he said.

When caseworkers make an administrative error in Arapahoe County, the county requires SNAP recipients to comply with a repayment agreement, he said. “We don’t want to put people who might already be in a rough spot in a worse spot.”

Walker disagreed and said in an email Arapahoe County was not willing to work on a repayment plan that felt fair to her. “They only gave me two repayment options and neither one of them fit within my budget and I expressed that but they would not work with me,” she wrote. “So I chose the lowest option of $80 per month.” 

The end of pandemic assistance

Emergency allotments for SNAP ended in March and human service advocates said child poverty and food insecurity will increase. Throughout the pandemic from March 2020 until March of this year, every SNAP household was receiving the maximum benefits for their eligible household size regardless of their income and deductions. Enrollment rates skyrocketed, at a time when people needed food assistance, and rates of hunger decreased because of those investments, McClurg said.

The omnibus bill passed by Congress in December, ended SNAP emergency allotments nationally in March. Emergency allotments for SNAP, or the guaranteed maximum benefit based on the number of eligible household members, provided an additional $53 million in federal benefits that came into the state per month, which helped support people who needed food, while it also provided a boost to local economies, he added. “That just evaporated literally overnight. We lost $53 million in additional federal food aid per month,” McClurg said.

Simultaneously, the state legislature invested about $14 million into the charitable food system through a Department of Human Services supplemental bill last spring. Food banks are trying to stretch those dollars. 

“It’s our biggest investment ever into the charitable food system as a state and it’s a drop in the bucket, but it’s all our state could do,” McClurg said. “It’s not even a third of what we lost per month from these emergency SNAP allotments. So that’s going to have a really large ripple effect. And we’re going to see hunger rates skyrocket beginning in 2023 when we do a retrospective analysis as a result.”

During the pandemic, the federal government required states to keep people already on Medicaid or new people who were enrolled during the pandemic on those benefits in exchange for enhanced federal payments. Now that the pandemic requirements are lifted, the state must reassess who is eligible for benefits, and county human services departments are inundated with paperwork, Pray said. 

“At the beginning of the unwind period, 1.7 million people were on Medicaid in the state,” she said. “All of these issues are intensifying for county administrators. And then, on top of that, people are still hungry, and there’s still a need for SNAP.”

When Stevens was finally approved after seven months of waiting for Mesa County administrators to review the errors on her SNAP paperwork, she received $740 in food benefits for herself and her two kids, the maximum amount during the pandemic. When the emergency assistance period ended, she began receiving $140 per month for herself and her two kids, not nearly enough, she said.

Just as Stevens did, Kassandra Puhler — who also lives in Mesa County — has visited food banks while she waited for SNAP administrators to renew her benefits.

Puhler has at least four times waited a month or longer for SNAP administrators to respond to her application to renew her benefits, she said. Once it took three months for administrators to renew her benefits.

“You feel unheard and you feel like you don’t know what you’re going to do next because there’s not someone to talk to, so there’s no way to resolve your issues or figure out what the issue may be, because there’s nobody there to help you,” she said.

The state is investing heavily in some strategies that will give counties equal access to tools to make processing applications easier, McClurg said, such as “intelligent character recognition of recertifications,” which uses bots to help read and process paperwork. 

The state is also using American Rescue Plan Act dollars to invest in work management systems that help counties triage cases, keep track of timeliness and manage their workflow better, he said.

“To have such a big bureaucratic program on the ground be implemented so differently — and to allow for such difference in local control — that theoretically could be a good thing and would allow local departments to run the programs in a way that responds to their community in different ways,” said Noah Sosin, incoming executive director at Lake County Build a Generation.

“But it’s not happening that way,” he said. “The way it’s set up right now allows for severe underutilization.”

Senate Bill 235 required the Colorado Department of Human Services and the Department of Health Care Policy and Financing to identify operational and fiscal practices that would increase efficiency when administering assistance programs such as SNAP and Medicaid, according to a report outlining the best practices.

The 300-page document chronicles a long list of recommendations, which includes improving hiring and retention policies, developing standardized performance expectations for employee productivity, standardizing business processes across all Colorado counties, creating a single statewide document and work management system, developing an online statewide resource guide for program applicants, establishing a directory of workers fluent in languages other than English, creating a statewide system that all counties and applicants can use to schedule and reschedule appointments and creating and administering an annual workforce and county operations survey, among other guidelines.

Those changes, the report says, could increase enrollment to benefits programs, improve timeliness when applications are processed, reduce the cost of running benefits programs and create more efficiency overall for program administrators.

CORRECTION: This story was updated at 9:57 a.m. Sept. 6, 2023, to correct that county-administered systems are 30% more expensive than state-administered systems.

Equity Reporter


Tatiana Flowers is the equity and general assignment reporter for the Colorado Sun and her work is funded by a grant from the Colorado Trust. She has covered crime and courts, plus education and health in Colorado, Connecticut, Israel and Morocco.

At the Colorado Sun, she focuses on writing in-depth stories about the entire housing spectrum from homeownership to renting and homelessness. She studied visual journalism at Penn State and international reporting at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism before moving to Colorado. In her spare time, she enjoys skiing, intense exercise, working as a local DJ, and live music events. Rabbits are her favorite animal.

Topic expertise: The entire housing spectrum from homeownership to renting to homelessness, health, race, culture and human rights

Education: Penn State University and CUNY Graduate School of Journalism

Honors & Awards: "At Risk," a Hearst Connecticut Media Group project I worked on won an Investigative Reporters & Editors Award and a New England First Amendment Coalition FOI Award in 2020. I have won several SPJ awards over the years including two first place Top of the Rockies awards this year for social justice reporting.

Professional Membership: The Denver Press Club, Colorado Association of Black Journalists


X (Formerly Twitter): @TATIANADFLOWERS