Colorado activists want more federal money to feed families

DENVER (AP) — Colorado lawmakers and hunger awareness groups are urging Congress to increase food stamp benefits as families increasingly turn to food banks due to job losses during the coronavirus pandemic.

Sens. Brittany Pettersen, a Democrat, and Larry Crowder, a Republican, joined advocates Wednesday in calling for a 15% increase in food stamp assistance — also known as SNAP or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — in the next federal virus relief package.

In Colorado, those below 130% of the federal poverty line — for example, a family of four earning $2,790 a month or less — are eligible for SNAP. A previous federal congressional relief package provided more aid as demand rose. That emergency allotment is set to expire Sept. 30.

In June, about 540,000 Colorado residents received nearly $95 million in food stamps, compared to 430,000 people and $52 million in February. A 15% hike would deliver $14 million more each month, or $25 per person, according to the Center on Budget Policy and Priorities, a nonpartisan research and policy institute.

Pettersen told a news conference that she worked as many as four jobs to get by during the Great Recession — but that those part-time sources of income are hard to come by today because of job losses and health risks in the pandemic.

“There are so many avenues where people could have supplemental income where that’s not even a possibility right now,” Pettersen said.

Before the virus hit, the Food Bank of the Rockies was providing 5 million pounds (2.3 million kilograms) of food per month. That number is now 10 million pounds (4.6 million kilograms), or about 300,000 meals per day, said food bank president Erin Pulling. The organization serves 30 counties in Colorado and parts of Wyoming.

“About 30% to 40 % of the clients that we are serving report that they have never in their entire lives needed any source of food assistance,” Pulling said. “So the need that we are seeing is unprecedented.”

In school districts that do not reopen classrooms in the fall, many students won’t have access to free or reduced meals — a staple for many families. A coalition of educators, activists and philanthropists is urging Congress to extend and expand emergency provisions that allow school districts to feed millions of children.

During the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has also issued a series of waivers to make it easier for schools and community organizations to serve free meals through federal nutrition programs.

Expanded food aid benefits the economy, the activists said. In a May 2019 agriculture department report, economists found federal money spent on SNAP had greater impact per dollar than other federal programs combined. The report suggested food stamps allow recipients to spend more on services or savings.

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Nieberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues.